"Never get involved in a land war in Asia" - Vizzini, The Princess Bride
----- In the twenty-fifth year of the Fifty-Second Earth King, Kuei -----
There was a young man, asleep in Kuei's library. Which wouldn't have been a problem, except that the scroll the dark mop of unruly hair was covering was Xaifun Prefecture under the Seventeenth Earth King, and there was only one copy of it and it was pretty valuable and also the one thing in the library Kuei happened to need right now, and oh my, he certainly hoped the young man wasn't drooling on it, like a sleepy Bosco.
Normally Kuei would call a servant to wake up the scroll-endangering sleeper, but it was two o'clock in the morning and the library was deserted. Except of course, for himself, Bosco, and this person who had fallen asleep on Xaifun Prefecture under the Seventeenth Earth King. Kuei wondered if he should be insulted. Sage Lu Xun's work wasn't that dull, considering the writings of his contemporaries.
Was there protocol for waking someone up? Kuei wondered. It was a library, so he knew he shouldn't shout. Was it all right for an Earth King to, say, poke random strangers who fell asleep on scrolls that he really wanted to read right now?
"Dai Li?" Kuei wondered aloud, hoping one of them would appear out of the shadows and do their actual job description of protecting the city's cultural heritage, which was currently in danger of drool.
There was no response. Which was logical, given the continuing agree-to-disagree definitions of culture held by himself and the Dai Li.
Kuei took a deep breath and poked the young man's shoulder. "Ummm. By order of the Earth King, wake up," he decreed.
The dark head jerked upward with a start. Kuei immediately leaned over his shoulder to check if the scroll was damaged, and collided chin-to-forehead with the young man who was turning to see who had poked him. "Ow," the Earth King complained, but at least he could see now that the scroll was okay, if a little rumpled, in the sudden flare of lamplight.
The lamp flared again, and Kuei almost had a heart attack. Firebenders. Firebenders, in his library. Centuries worth of precious knowledge, all collected on paper. Very flammable, thin, fast-burning paper.
He tried stumbling backwards, but the young man had grabbed a fist full of his robes with one hand and was scrubbing at his face with the other. Kuei screamed - very softly, because this was still a library - and called for Bosco.
The young man looked up, face half in shadow from the lamplight, and relaxed his grip. There was something familiar about him, Kuei's panicked brain tried to reason. Pale skin, dark hair, hard golden eyes. That scowl…
"Earth King Kuei?" a sleepy yet familiar voice rasped.
"Fire Lord Zuko?" It couldn't be anyone else, logically, but Kuei's eyes must be playing tricks on him because this young man looked nothing like the intimidating Fire Lord. Who, Kuei knew academically, was indeed quite young, but walked with the confidence and the fearsome silhouette of a seasoned world leader and dangerous warrior. Without crown and topknot, dressed in a simple tunic that didn't make his shoulders seem half again as broad as they actually were, angry scar softened by shadow, he could have been mistaken for a junior clerk.
Who would never be hired as a clerk in the first place because he was still capable of burning down the library with a single breath.
"What are you doing here?" they asked each other at the same time.
"It's my library," Kuei said first. "And I was looking for a scroll. That one, actually," he said, scooting around the table to subtly tug it away from the firebender. An elbow clamped down on the parchment and Kuei jumped as the tension threatened to rip it. He stopped pulling, but kept his hands on the edges.
"I wasn't done with it yet," the Fire Lord said rather petulantly, and Kuei wracked his brain trying to remember how old the other sovereign actually was, because at the moment he sounded like a teenager.
"Well it's my scroll, and you fell asleep on it," the Earth King replied, equally testy. He did, however, surrender the glaring contest after only two seconds, because Zuko's face was just … scary. And really good at glaring. "What do you need it for, anyway?" he asked, glad that at least he hadn't made any massive trade concessions as a result of that small contest of wills.
"Trying to figure out what was the Jingshen-ordained path of the Yantai River so the clans can finally agree on something and no one in Xenshi has to starve this winter."
Kuei had forgotten how … passionate … the young Fire Lord could get, and his volume was definitely reaching the limits of unacceptable for a library, but in a way it was nice because Kuei didn't meet many people who got what it was like to feel so strongly that they just needed to know things. Even if it did have to do with the tiresome leaders of the Ling Shi and Xenbai clans not being able to agree about whose field it was in which the Earth Kingdom ended and the Fire Colonies began. "That's what I wanted it for, too! It's only the historical record in the entire Earth Kingdom that corroborates that particular spirit story."
"Wait, this is it?! And why did no one tell me these people were asking for an actual map from a Koh-damned spirit story?" Zuko was scowling at the scroll now like its very existence was a personal insult, and Kuei wondered nervously if Zuko was one of those firebenders who could light things on fire with their minds, like he'd read about in Theoretical Limitations of Bending Complete With Case Studies, Book Two (Fire). "There's nothing actually useful, like I don't know, a real map anywhere in the University library? The legal library? Omashu? Local government records? What about all those documents the Dai Li confiscated?"
"No, no, no, no, and I had those returned, and also no," Kuei replied.
"Are you sure?" Zuko persisted, and Kuei was really starting to feel insulted, and not just because he'd heard fewer 'Your Majestys' in the last two minutes than ever before in his life. Which was not a real reason to be insulted anyway because the Fire Nation used titles as honorifics, so Kuei shouldn't expect Zuko to call him anything other than 'Earth King'.
"I know the name and location of every important historical book and scroll in my kingdom," Kuei said in response, and it wasn't a boast. He had also read them all, and even a lot of the non-important ones to boot. "And I had my staff prepare a list of all available references before we started discussing the agricultural borders."
"Apologies, your Majesty," Zuko said, scrubbing his face again with a hand. Kuei was beginning to think that this particular firebender didn't do late nights very well. "So there's no way we can dig up more information on where exactly the Yantai flowed a thousand years ago?"
"I'm afraid not," Kuei replied. "Unless we literally dig up Wan Shi Tong's library, or find a way into Yi Ming's Secret Archive."
"Secret Archive? Where's that? Why have I never heard about it?" The speed at which the firebender had gone from sleepy-annoyed to fully alert and very interested was disturbing.
"Well…it's a secret?" Kuei couldn't find a more basic way to explain it. "Sorry, usually I have advisors and staff around to make sure I don't say the wrong things. Perhaps you can simply forget I mentioned it." Because royalty didn't say oops, like he really wanted to at the moment.
"What's the use of a secret archive if you can't make use of it?" Zuko persisted. "Especially if it sounds like you know exactly where it is!"
"It's just, I really can't tell you any more," Kuei ignored those questions, because Zuko had ignored his request first, and pressing the issue was just rude. "You're the leader of the Fire Nation. I can't go around telling you Earth Kingdom secrets all willy-nilly."
"I see." Kuei cringed a little internally, and wondered where the Fire Lord had learned that I'm disappointed in you look from. He didn't seem old enough to have kids just yet. And why did Kuei even care what Zuko thought of him? They had almost gone to war once, and even if they were on good terms now, there was no reason Kuei should expect them to be anything besides cordial to each other.
"Your Majesty, I believe we are working towards a common goal." At least Zuko sounded more like the person Kuei knew from council chambers now, rather than the strangely annoyed academic of a few minutes ago. "If you think this archive might hold the key to a quick, bloodless resolution to the current border dispute, perhaps in the interest of international cooperation, you could consider sharing this crucial information with me? "
Well, at least this made sense to Kuei. He was well-trained at deciphering the meaning under court phrasing. "I was wondering what favor you were going to ask, after saving me on that bridge."
"That's not why I - I didn't do that for a favor," Zuko's voice made the last word sound dirty. Oh right, Fire Nation. According to Voyages Among Volcanoes: A Cultural Treatise on the Children of Agni, their honor-based values system (which was hideously imprecise when it came to defining appropriate repayment for an action) tended to be insulted at transactional language. "I would have done that for Gilak, too. Even if he was just going to stab me while I tried."
Kuei tried to frame his debt from the Fire Nation perspective. Zuko had saved his life, so Kuei … was honor-bound to do the same? No, that didn't make any sense. The most he could save Zuko from was the head librarian once she found out about all the yelling and lamp-flaring. Was he supposed to help Zuko? What if it conflicted with his own honor, which might have something to do with not telling Official Royal Secrets?
"Uh," he said, eloquently. "Sorry, I - this is all very new. We like our balanced ledgers, here in the Earth Kingdom, and I find honor to be … disturbingly un-quantitative." Unless it was used by Earth Kingdom nobles, in which case it usually meant they were trying to seem like they wanted to do one thing when they really had a different goal in mind.
"Right," Zuko said, expression softening in understanding. "I didn't mean to call upon a debt. I just hoped -" He broke off with a frustrated sigh. "Don't those clan leaders make you want to set something on fire with their pointless squabbling?"
Kuei believed he knew what the younger man meant, but right now he was more worried about his library being set on fire and was that actual smoke drifting out from between Zuko's fingers? "I'm afraid I'll have to get back to you on the matter in six to eight weeks." Kuei gave the standard response that usually worked when he didn't know what to do and needed time to think about something, and hoped it would just make the smoke stop.
Evidently the Avatar wasn't the only person who completely ignored that phrase. "Let's just go have a look now. It's not too far," Zuko said.
Were they even speaking the same language? "That's impossible! We'd need to clear the necessary paperwork and organize the logistics for the journey, which takes at least a week. Besides, that place is booby-trapped to high heaven and legends say there's riddles. We'd never make it to the document chambers." And how did Zuko know that it was within a day's journey? Oh right. Kuei had just told him. On the bright side, the hands had stopped smoking and there were no new singe marks on the precious scroll.
The strange smirk on the firebender's lips reminded Kuei of a certain blind earthbender who scared the living daylights out of him. "I'm really good at booby traps. And I'm willing to bet you're really good at riddles. We can do this. We should do this."
Kuei hadn't even noticed when they had started using the non-Royal plural until it was too late. "I really don't think this is a good idea…"
"Earth King Kuei," said Fire Lord Zuko, with a small smile that completely changed his face, "Would you like to go on a field trip with me?"
Here it is! I'm really excited about this one. This first chapter references an event in the comic North and South (this fic, and its title, is partly inspired by the adorable ending it), but otherwise it's pretty light on the comics references. Cover art is on my tumblr (d-naggeluide).
"I guess people like to read about the things that they want the most and experience the least."- Bernard Lowe, Westworld
Zuko caught himself with a familiar refrain in his head as he swung quietly out of his window and up onto the roof of Uncle's apartment, where he preferred to stay whenever duty called him to Ba Sing Se. Good thing he'd been so paranoid when they first moved to the Upper Ring all those years ago, and chosen the only room where the window was a conveniently shadowed blind spot where, if he timed it just right, he could escape the gaze of soldiers on the streets and Dai Li on the roofs. Not that he'd been thinking that he would need to escape his own bodyguards at the time.
Waiting in shadow for the right moment to drop to the street - damn fancy Upper Ring with its buildings set too far apart to easily move over the shingles - Zuko ran a quick check of his preparations. Dao, light travel pack with a spare shirt, spyglass, writing supplies and basic rations plus some treats so that Bosco's very sharp teeth had something to bite that wasn't himself, dagger and a half-dozen throwing knives secured about his person. A brief and hopefully non-worry-inducing note to Uncle laid on the bedside table. Now if only he could get this earworm out of his head, what even was it, he hadn't heard it forever…
Oh. Of course. Through the mountain … secret tunnel or something like that, with a ridiculously catchy refrain that Sokka had firmly planted in his head at their last meeting. Which had been way too long ago, so why should it come up now of all times? Was his brain trying to passively-aggressively Uncle him into channeling the Water Tribesman and thinking up an actual plan for this little expedition?
How hard could breaking into an archive be, Zuko thought as he dropped silently to the street. It wasn't like a library in the Earth Kingdom could be as well-guarded as the North Pole, or Pohaui Stronghold.
Zuko gained the shadow of the next building, quickly navigating to an area less populated by the night watch. From here on out it should be all clear, he could take the service route to the palace -
"Going somewhere?" a familiar voice asked, as Toph silently stepped out of a wall and into his path.
Zuko swore under his breath. Earthbending was supposed to be loud. And this particular earthbender was supposed to be asleep. In the guest room of Uncle's apartment, nonetheless.
"None of your business," he snapped, as much as he could while whispering, and moved to step around her.
"Actually it is very much my business, because I have a large amount of gold riding on a bet with Suki about when you'll finally give in to Uncle and start dallying with a nice Earth Kingdom noble." Toph matched his step with two of hers to intercept.
Zuko would have understood if Toph had made a bet about his love life with Sokka, but with Suki? That just felt like betrayal. Even if he knew she probably had his best interests at heart. He narrowed his good eye. "Fine. You win. I'm sneaking out of the apartment three hours before sunrise to go dally with an Earth Kingdom noble."
"Huh. Not a lie." Toph swiped a hand across his chest to do a fabric-quality assessment. "But you're not dressed for a date. Unless it involves sword fighting, and not the sexy kind." She snickered at her own innuendo.
"You don't know what I like to do for dates." Zuko tried another subtle dodge and was foiled again. How could a seventeen-year-old that came barely up to his shoulder still be so good at getting in his way?
"Picnics in graveyards?" Toph guessed, which was pretty accurate but Zuko was clued up enough to know that if he eventually went out with someone other than Mai, that wasn't a move he should lead with.
"They're spookiest at new moon," he replied flatly. "I mean, the most romantic. Now scram." He made a jump for the roof, and was pulled down by the ankle with a stone fist.
"Ow," he complained, cursing the Dai Li for inspiring the little terror with their rock gloves.
"Come on, Zuko, just tell me where you're going! I know it's something fun, you've got a spyglass in there."
"No," Zuko said stubbornly, and he should have learned by now not to try out-stubborning the Blind Bandit.
"A very metal spyglass," Toph said, with meaning, holding up a hand and crooking her fingers menacingly.
Well, shit. That had been a gift, from Azula following his first Agni Kai, and even if it was mostly an insult it was also a sign that she cared, and it was the only thing Zuko had from her anymore that didn't hurt when he looked at it. "Fine! I'm going somewhere with Kuei."
"WHAT?!" Damn, that had been loud, but Toph had relaxed the rock's grip on his ankle in her surprise, and Zuko knew he wouldn't have a better chance so he moved, gaining not the stone-tiled roof but the wooden trim that ran along the first story of the building and using that to pull himself up and flip to the opposite balcony.
"You're dating the EARTH KING?" Toph was not doing anything about volume control, and there was a guard pair that was almost within earshot, so Zuko aborted his escape with a low growl for the more pressing objective of getting the earthbender to shut up.
"No, idiot! We're just going on a short field trip," he hissed into her ear as he made a grab for her to at least pull her into a shadow with him.
"Hey, no fair! I had dibs!" He'd never heard her call dibs, so that was absolutely not true, but least Toph was whispering now. "I'm coming too!" she announced.
"I thought you were recruiting for your school," Zuko argued. "There's not going to be any promising earthbenders where we're going." Or so he presumed.
"The lily-livers can take care of that. Besides, I've been in the business of changing lives for the past few years, isn't it time I got a little of that for myself instead?"
"Toph…" Zuko was going to make Sokka regret his catchy turns of phrase the next time they sparred. Oma and Shu, they were just going to do research, not change anyone's life. Not that he was going to have any luck explaining that to Toph. "You can't come," is all Zuko came up with.
Toph's shit-eating grin was as much in her voice as it was on her face. "Try and stop me."
Well. He wouldn't need to stop her, if only he could lose her. Zuko ran.
"Eep!" Kuei jumped away from the flash of motion and scuttled behind Bosco, the pounding of his heart drowning out the sound of the springtime spider-crickets. Bosco, unimpressed, turned to face him and fixed Kuei with a look.
"Eh," Kuei tried to explain himself, followed by a sheepish "Oh," as he realized what had shocked him into movement. "It's just a badger-cat, probably after a mole-rat, isn't it? Because we're at the stables, and that's their job."
Bosco nodded sleepily, and sat down in the shadows to wait.
Kuei found he couldn't join him immediately, too pent up with nervous energy to do anything other than pace. "I can't believe we're doing this," he muttered to the bear. "Again. But this time I think we really have a chance!
Kuei remembered well the excitement and trepidation with which he had made his first real decision by himself - to travel his Kingdom in disguise after the fall of Ba Sing Se. Yi Ming's Archive had been the first place Kuei and Bosco had gone - or attempted to go, at any rate. Adventure novels, as it turned out, were woefully inadequate preparation for the practicalities of actual adventure, especially in the more mundane areas of what to eat and where to sleep. Still, they'd made it to the gate and escaped the first booby- trap in an adrenaline rush of luck that had completely satisfied any thirst for adventure Kuei had thought he had, and made the smart decision to turn around.
"From what I've heard," he said conspiratorially to Bosco, "If Zuko wants to do something, he gets it done. I'm not sure I believe all the stories - definitely none of that airship-jumping nonsense! - but don't you think this could be our best shot at finally unlocking the Archive?"
Bosco was decidedly neutral on the matter; he wasn't constantly inundated with court gossip after all. His encounters with the firebender had been relatively few, and for some reason Kuei couldn't fathom, Zuko seemed almost frightened of the gentle Bosco!
"We can trust Zuko, right?" Kuei asked next, worried. "We want the same thing, here. And he's the Avatar's firebending master and companion, which is historically a good recommendation. The Avatar's masters are usually great ambassadors for peace and balance in their nations, and that's mostly what we've seen out of Zuko so far."
However, Kuei was too experienced an analytic to neglect arguing a counterpoint. "On the other hand, he's the Fire Lord. And rulers can't be ambassadors. They have to think about their nations first; I know that much. The archive has been sealed for almost five hundred years, and the content catalog got destroyed in the Mold Crisis under the Fiftieth Earth King, so we can only guess what's in there given the time period. If the prefecture map exists, it's got to be there, but it's what else is there that worries me. I don't know what we could find that could help out the modern Fire Nation against us, but is it worth risking it?"
Bosco didn't offer an opinion besides a snuffle into Kuei's shoulder that spoke of his trust in the Earth King's decision-making abilities. Stuck in his critical mindset, Kuei told himself that the bear really ought to know him better by now.
"Who knows," he said with a touch of bitterness, tangling his fingers in Bosco's rough fur. "Maybe I'll find what I need to finally figure out how to be a good Earth King. That would be bad for the Fire Nation, right?"
It was this problem that he came back to, time and time again, and for the life of him he couldn't find the answer. The sample of Earth Kings was large enough to be considered statistical, so shouldn't he be able to isolate the key characteristics of a successful ruler? All he could say definitively was that having the right biographer counted for more than it ought, and Kuei didn't want to wait until he was dead to be looked on favorably. But maybe that's just how it would have to be; after all, here he was, almost thirty still just faking it.
He must have voiced some of these thoughts aloud; Bosco was starting to get concerned, Kuei knew from the increasing frequency of alarmed snuffles, but he couldn't help where his thoughts were leading.
Since Kuei had re-taken the throne, he'd had his hands full rebuilding the Council of Five and replacing most of the top government officials, trying to figure out who he could trust. He'd had no idea how to start; how was he suddenly supposed to know what trust meant, when his faith in his advisors had been so profoundly broken? And although self-help scrolls had been a bestselling genre a few decades past, most of them had titles like Get Rich Quick with Real Estate Prospecting Along the Front or Dai Li or Die: Survival for the Recent Arrival, and none of them touched on the subject of Everyone I Trusted Was Lying To Me My Whole Life (although So Your Mama Told You You're a War Child had come close).
So Kuei had done the reading: the resumes, the service records, the news articles and written reports - say what you want about the Dai Li but they were brilliantly pedantic record-keepers - any material he could find about the people who ran his City and Kingdom. At first, he'd been crippled by doubt, unable to accept the simplest fact without double- and triple-checking. Re-building trust was hard; it was as if someone had asked him to misplace a modifier, or calculate terminal velocity with a different gravitational constant, or re-interpret the actions of the Tenth Earth King with no knowledge of the history of Unification. It could be done, but the world would fall into a different shape afterwards and never be the same.
Kuei was proud that he'd mostly succeeded, but some small part of him always wondered if he was still somehow being handled. And even though such behaviour would be more understandable coming from foreign politicians, Kuei absolutely refused to be manipulated like that again. As much as he didn't believe that Zuko had an ulterior motive for this trip, he'd misplaced his trust before, and paid for it heavily.
"My advisors say this peace can't last," Kuei admitted. "I've been right so far, in ordering them to give Zuko a chance instead of having him killed right away to throw the Fire Nation into a succession war. More than right. He's been a very humble and well-intentioned Fire Lord. But he's Fire. What was it that Guru Shima said? Fire wields power in one fist and will in the other as two halves of a single weapon. Zuko's got the will, and he'll have the power eventually, whether he admits it or not."
Kuei yelped as Bosco head-butted him, hard, as if telling him to snap out of it. "What?!" Kuei demanded. These were legitimate concerns and Bosco wasn't helping him sort through them like a best friend should. Even if Bosco, as a bear, had a very different view of what was important in life.
Kuei launched into an explanation, stepping back from Bosco to allow himself more space to gesticulate pointedly. "If the people of the Fire Nation ever unite behind Zuko, he'll be the most powerful man on the planet. Just think about it. He's got the Avatar's trust and friendship, and the citizenry of the Fire Nation have had war as their primary marketable skill for the past century. They're all trained in some kind of military-applicable occupation, and if they bring their honor and loyalty into a matter - well, even the Dai Li couldn't brainwash them into changing sides!"
He threw up his hands, then folded them across his chest forlornly. Bosco at least seemed to grasp the gravity of the situation now, and Kuei appreciated the sympathy.
"And even if Zuko's not that powerful yet, just look at his family," Kuei had to add. "Son of Ozai, brother of Azula. We met the Fire Princess in disguise, but she got the Dai Li to follow her. She's certainly a master manipulator so why not her brother? After all, he talked us into this trip in the first place!"
That wasn't entirely true, Bosco's critical expression reminded Kuei. Kuei himself had wanted to open the archives the instant he'd heard about them at ten years of age. But Long Feng had told him no, and that was before Kuei had figured out that he was a king, and that meant that he didn't actually have to listen when someone said no. And after he had, he'd come to trust the Grand Secretariat's judgement to the point where he didn't question it anymore.
Kuei sighed and sagged against Bosco, allowing the bear to wrap him in a big, warm hug. He closed his eyes against unpleasant memories and worked on collecting the threads of his thoughts into a cohesive summary. Despite having second thoughts, and third thoughts, and a lot of thoughts as was his habit, the fact remained that Kuei had said yes to Zuko's offer with uncharacteristic speed and confidence. That had to count for something.
"I've got a whole lot of reasons for not trusting the Fire Lord and what he might become," Kuei concluded slowly, "But not a whole lot for not trusting Zuko, right here and right now."
Behind him, fur brushed the side of his face as Bosco nodded.
"In all our dealings so far, Zuko's been straightforward and honest. And he knows that he could have called on my debt to him to make me take him to the Archive, but he didn't. But I'm worried that I'm getting my hopes up, Bosco. There's so much lost knowledge in there that I just want! Do you think I'm letting that affect my judgement?"
Apparently Bosco thought this was a distinct possibility. Kuei's shoulders slumped. "Tell you what, Bosco. You have better instincts than me about people. Way better. Mine are terrible, I thought Long Feng of all people was just looking out for me! I'll let you decide, okay? After all, we don't have to leave until we actually do."
That decided, Kuei settled back against the bear's rough fur to wait. "I'm sorry I raised my voice at you," he murmured. "That's not how I should treat my best friend. Especially when I was the one making a mountain out of a mole-rat hill. But it's going to be okay, isn't it? I've got you with me. What could possibly go wrong?"
Kuei didn't have to wait long; he was just starting to doze off when the shadow of a tree shifted to expel two figures who approached on silent feet. The faint moonlight illuminated their fair skin, and despite their darkened travel clothing Kuei recognized them at once. The firebender he'd expected, although it was still strange seeing him dressed this way, now with a dark cloak concealing the brighter crimson-and-gold underneath. The other, wrapped in dark red over her habitual cream-and-green outfit, was not a great surprise. After all, Kuei had presumed that his own best friend would accompany him; it was only logical that the Fire Lord wouldn't come alone. And it probably wouldn't hurt to have the self-proclaimed greatest earthbender in the world along in case they had to excavate anything, although Kuei was dubious about her skill in the fine art of archaeological bending, which was rather the opposite of the large-scale demolition she seemed to specialize in.
"Your Majesty," Toph's bow was court-perfect, which even Kuei had to admit looked somehow wrong coming from her.
"Lady Bei Fong," he acknowledged. She hadn't gotten much taller since he'd seen her last, but if he thought about the number of materials surrounding him that she could summon to her command, she was still just as terrifying despite her size.
"She, uh, kind of won't leave," Zuko explained, rubbing the back of his neck apologetically.
"I'm guessing you'll need to hire new bodyguards after you gave your current ones the slip so easily," the blind earthbender said to her friend gleefully. "Consider this my job interview."
Kuei had never imagined that the Fire Lord could look so terrified. Kuei sympathized; he knew that he would certainly have panicked if he'd thought his own bodyguards incapable of protecting him.
"Fu - Monkey-feathers. No, Toph. Just - no." Zuko took a deep breath to collect himself, then turned to Kuei. "By your leave, Earth King Kuei, Master Toph … insists on accompanying us."
"Of course, of course," Kuei was quick to agree. "After all, I brought my best friend too!" He indicated Bosco, who was welcoming Toph with a gentle snuffle.
"Aw, Zuko, I'm your best friend?!" The teenager sounded delighted.
"I guess so? Although I'm not an expert on what that means." Zuko was greeting Bosco now, reaching up to scratch behind his ears while warily keeping out of grabbing distance. Kuei remembered the firebender's aversion to bear hugs from the South Pole, but Bosco seemed understanding enough about it. The bear, content that Zuko meant no harm, turned to eye Kuei meaningfully.
"It means you enjoy spending time together, and trust each other to help out with your problems," Kuei said thoughtfully. "Like me and Bosco." And if his best friend trusted their companions to do right by them, then he would too.
"Then I guess I have five best friends," Toph decided. She elbowed the young man next to her with surprising accuracy and no small amount of force. "Including you."
"Are we friends?" wondered Zuko, and Kuei once again found himself the focus of the intense golden gaze. "I think we could be…" Zuko's voice trailed off, uncertain.
It was definitely a question worth pondering, Kuei admitted. By Water Tribe standards, they were friends, since they'd shared a meal under Kanna's roof together, but the Water Tribes had the loosest definitions of friendship but the strictest definitions of family. In the Earth Kingdom, friendship wasn't undertaken lightly, since it came with binding terms for both parties that Kuei certainly wasn't ready to accept with the ruler of a foreign nation. He thought back to both Beacons for the Ages: Agni's Greatest Heroes and Sociology of the Post-Avatar Fire Nation. However, the only thing those volumes agreed on was that loyalty wasn't limited to friends, and honor applied equally to friends and enemies. The actual definition of enemy or friend seemed extremely situational, and a person could sometimes be both at the same time.
Six to eight weeks might be enough time to make an informed decision, but perhaps Kuei was overcomplicating things - at least that's what Bosco's look said to him. And Kuei had agreed to trust Bosco's judgement. "I'd like that," Kuei replied cautiously.
The soft smile that appeared on the younger man's face reassured Kuei that he wasn't the only one who had yet to figure out exactly what that meant. "Sorry. I'm not very good at this stuff," Zuko said.
"Me neither," Kuei confessed. "At least, not unless you're a bear."
"No worries, Scrolls. My first friends were badgermoles. I get how you feel." Toph's sudden change of tone to the same casual speech she used with Zuko gave Kuei cultural whiplash. The Transitive Property of Friendship was an Air Nomad concept - and look where that had gotten them - that he hadn't expected to apply here. And really, Scrolls? He hadn't brought more than two dozen very necessary documents with him.
Which, if he wanted to get away with before the head librarian woke up and started looking for him to deliver another extremely stern lecture about the proper treatment of old parchment, Kuei needed to abscond with pretty soon. "I'll have ostrich horses prepared for you both, if you're ready to go," he said.
"No need to wake anyone up at this hour," Zuko said. "Anyway, we'll just need one. Toph can't sense where she's going from the saddle, so it's best if we ride together." He disappeared into the stable and came out a minute later with the mount , then helped the blind earthbender up.
Bosco gave Kuei one last snuffle before squatting down for Kuei to settle the scroll bag carefully before scrambling atop the bear's broad shoulders.
"Lead the way, your Majesty," the Fire Lord said quietly.
"Just call me Kuei," the Earth King said, and although he wasn't sure about the protocol governing friendships between royalty, it felt right.
"Awww. I was gonna call you Scrolls," Toph complained with a yawn. "And your bear sounds like a Snuffles to me."
Kuei chuckled but didn't object, feeling strangely light-hearted as he rode out of the palace grounds with his new friends.
The early morning sun broke out from behind a cloud, warm rays washing over Zuko's upturned face as they left the Outer Wall behind them. Zuko felt his chi welcoming the light, stirring him to an alertness that had waned as the sleep deprivation and quiet farmlands lulled the senses. He felt Toph stir against his back, where she'd fallen asleep shortly after they'd left the palace, threatening him with a world of pain if he even thought about ditching her.
Toph yawned and stretched, cuffing Zuko lightly on the back of the head as she did so. "Good morning, field trip crew!" she announced. "So Sparky. Since I missed the briefing, what's it gonna be? Prison break? Revenge mission? Ancient ruins? I'm open to new ideas, too."
… Right. It had actually never come up, last night, but Zuko supposed that that's what Toph got for self-inserting into Kuei's field trip. "We're going to Yi Ming's Secret Archive," he told her.
Zuko felt Toph go still behind him, before she exploded. "ANOTHER FUCKING LIBRARY??!!!"
Zuko winced. "Toph, my ears!"
"My ears," echoed Kuei, and reached for Bosco's. "Let's just pretend we didn't hear that bad word, shall we?" Zuko noted that he should probably warn Kuei about Toph. And himself, while he was at it, since she tended to bring out the sailor in him.
"Worst. Field trip. EVER," the earthbender complained, emphasizing each word with a punch to Zuko's upper arm. "Who the hell takes a blind girl to a library?"
In retrospect, he should have led with that last night.
It's a headcannon of mine that Toph never got her field trip with Zuko, so instead she adopted Uncle Iroh for herself.
Folks, may I present … Kuei -ngst, aka when you're about to turn 30 and still have no idea what you're supposed to be doing with your life (For reference … 25th year of Kuei's reign is 104 AG => Kuei = 29, Zuko = 21, Toph=17)
Also spider crickets are a real thing and I hate them
Next 2-3 chapters will come relatively quickly since I am much happier with their current state than I was with this one's at the start of the week.
"Before we begin, what are the parameters of the game? How many guesses do I get? Is there a time limit?" -Raymond Holt, Brooklyn Nine Nine
"That's just asking to be set on fire," Zuko complained, staring at the ancient, gnarled, mostly-dead tree looming over them like a small flammable mountain. And growing into - or was it out of - the sheer canyon walls behind it. Glancing to the side, he saw the Earth King giving him a dirtier look than Zuko had imagined the gentle scholar to be capable of, and Toph sharing his own expression of annoyance. "I'm not going to actually burn it," Zuko clarified for Kuei's sake.
"That's the largest 'benders not welcome here' sign I've ever seen, and I can't even see! Or read!" exclaimed Toph. "Who puts a library inside a tree?"
"You know, I actually wondered the same thing the first time I came here," Kuei said conversationally. "Keeping parchment scrolls and paper books inside a living organism? Terrible idea! Between the moisture and the insects, nothing would last more than half a century!"
"Then how do we know there's anything left inside?" Zuko asked.
"Well, according to local legend this tree is actually a gate to the Spirit World," Kuei answered. "If that's true, then where and how the knowledge is stored is - pardon the pun - immaterial."
"Great. That's the last thing we need. Spirits," Zuko grumbled. As were puns, like he was always telling Sokka, even if he secretly enjoyed the Water Tribe warrior's groan-worthy quips.
"But the best thing for safeguarding an archive through the ages," Kuei argued. "Especially if this tree itself determines the worthiness of those who seek the knowledge within, as rumor has it."
"How do trees know who's worthy or not?" Toph asked. "Are you sure that's not just shaman-talk for, 'basic intelligence test required before entering fancy library'?"
That made more sense to Zuko than a tree with a consciousness. He thought back to the Sun Warriors' ominous warning about the judgement of Ran and Shaw being based on his ancestry, and how much potential that had had to backfire on himself and Aang. He hoped that seeking knowledge, at least, would be considered equal-opportunity, and not based on genetics. But optimism was Aang and Katara's area of expertise, and Zuko's was rather the opposite. With his luck, this dead tree would just have it out for firebenders and earthbenders equally.
"Whatever the source of these legends - truth or not, that is - it's been enough to keep people away for centuries," Kuei said. "Although perhaps the contents of the Archive itself are simply no longer relevant in this modern age." He sounded sad at that last statement, even though it seemed like a more likely explanation to Zuko. With the past century of war, the acquisition of knowledge had been largely redirected towards battlefield innovation. The luxury of historical scholarship was reserved for the independently wealthy who lived far from the front lines. Or banished princes tasked with chasing dead legends.
"Well, we're not going to find out anything if we just stand here talking about it," Zuko decided. "Kuei, where did you try going in last time?"
The Earth King's eyes were wide and he sounded slightly panicked as he exclaimed, "But there's so much talking left to do! It's still a living organic structure, according to the people in the closest village, which means it's not static, despite how it looks on the outside, and obviously neither of you can use any bending in there - especially fire, so we need a strategy! We can't just go ahead without being certain it's the right moment - Bosco, what are you doing? Bosco!"
Zuko's attention had also been drawn by the bear, but much earlier, and he and Toph were now following the animal as he padded into the vegetation surrounding the not-as-dead-as-it-could-have-been tree's base. Kuei ran after them, still protesting, and Zuko wanted nothing more than to hush the Earth King, although if the danger here was from spirits and not people, the extra noise was probably more annoying than dangerous. It would only be a matter of time anyway before Toph gave Kuei the evil eye and he shut up.
As the bushes got thicker, Bosco turned a pleading look on the humans, and Zuko reluctantly drew his swords to hack at the dense greenery. He was going to have to re-sharpen the edges after this abuse - if he'd known exactly where they were going, he would have taken a machete like Sokka's along as well. Fortunately they didn't have far to go; a minute later, the brush gave way to a dark, mossy clearing just big enough for a small group to stand in front of the gate in the tree trunk.
It looked like it had grown there, hundreds of years ago, between a fork in the great roots. Vines that were as much a part of the old tree as the branches themselves curled and twined into an organic gate, clothed in lichen. The patterns their offshoots formed were oddly structured in places, and a dawning of comprehension lingered at the edge of Zuko's awareness.
"See the writing?" Kuei asked, and yes, that's exactly what it was! Old script though, a cursive that was no longer of much practical use since the invention of the earth-block printing press.
"Nope, don't see anything," Toph supplied, and she would have enjoyed the look on Kuei's face if she'd been able to see it. Judging by her expression though, his other physical reactions were the equivalent. Zuko resisted rolling his eyes. He must have really been tired on their journey here; there was yet another thing about Toph that he'd failed to warn Kuei about.
Zuko took Toph's hand and guided her fingers lightly over the shapes in the vines, explaining the structure to her. He eyed the characters nervously; there was nothing natural about the writing. Either this was the spirits at work - and he wasn't keen for such an encounter - or something else very strange was going on here.
"It's the first riddle," Kuei said helpfully. "But it's different from the last time I was here! I suppose a new one grows every spring, that would make sense. See the stones lining the right side of the gate? Brush those webs off - gently though! They're pressure plates that let you select the right sequence of brush strokes for the character." Kuei read the inscription, his calm voice a credit to his visible nervous excitement. "They try to beat me, they try in vain. And when I win, I end the pain."
Zuko supposed it made sense to start off with an easy one, if the tree really wanted that badly to kill them later. "Death," he said immediately. "So that's six strokes…what?"
Kuei and Bosco were looking at him with matching alarmed expressions.
"Is that not right?" Zuko didn't understand what the problem was, so he went over the shape of the character in his mind again, counting the strokes. Six, definitely. And each one of them appeared on the column of stones next to the gate.
"Uh, no, it makes perfect sense," Kuei said eventually. "That's not exactly how I think of death, though, so it's just a little … disturbing to think that life could be so bad that death would be a desirable alternative."
"Try being banished without half your face sometime," Zuko said, dryly. In retrospect, he could have phrased that better. Judging by their reactions, he'd gone and done what Sokka was always telling him not to, something about being glib about stuff that had happened long ago. But really, Toph should have warned Kuei about that.
"And here I was hoping you'd outgrown the angsty teenager phase into a well-adjusted young adult," Toph joked, trying to lighten the mood.
Zuko obliged and smirked. "That's only what I wanted Uncle to think."
A few minutes later, they were all trying to look like they weren't holding their breath as Zuko pressed the stone for the first stroke of the written character. With a small click, the mechanism started falling into place. More confident now, Zuko finished the sequence and stepped back. The living vines parted with an eerie rustle.
"Spirits," whispered Kuei, and Zuko wasn't sure if he was cursing or not.
They stepped inside.
Toph had bent Kuei's glow crystals into rings which they wore around their heads so that they would be able to keep track of each other in the dark interior. She'd covered most of herself in rock armor as well, as a precaution against the absence of her element. Zuko had taken an additional crystal band around his right wrist in case he'd have to go without his fire, and he held it up in the dim light that seeped through small insect boreholes in the ancient trunk.
"That's a lot of empty space, isn't it?" said Toph, toes shifting nervously in the dirt.
"It's not all empty," Zuko told her, although he was craning his neck up and up until sight became lost to shadow.
"It's amazing!" Kuei exclaimed. Bosco agreed with a soft snort, and the Earth King leaned reflexively closer to the bear.
"I thought you'd been here before?" Zuko asked.
"Well... Bosco and I didn't quite make it past the gate last time," Kuei admitted sheepishly. Bosco mirrored his expression in the dim crystal light.
At least nothing in the immediate vicinity looked highly flammable, so Zuko ignited a handheld flame for better lighting. "I think we have to go up," he said, after examining what he could see of the vast interior. Ecosystems had lived and died inside the sheltering shell, and their skeletons cast inscrutable shadows in the firelight. A central tangle of old roots and vines coiled up towards the crown of the tree. "Sorry, Toph. Doesn't look like there's a lot of earth where we're going."
"Yeah," the earthbender said unhappily, and slipped her hand into his own. "That’s what it sounds like to me, too."
Zuko started leading the group over and through the ground roots towards the central pillar, guiding Toph with a word or the pressure of his fingers. He soon fell back though as Bosco's warm exhales of breath on his back became more insistent; the bear, for all that he was domesticated, clearly had better pathfinding instincts in this situation. The climb became slowly steeper, but not impossible, even with an inexperienced Kuei and the added task of leading Toph. Still, they were all glad of a chance to relax and take a breath when they reached a wide, flat tangle of dried vegetation at least fifty meters above where they'd started.
Toph took the chance to let go of Zuko and guide a few small stones through the air, testing the extent of their surroundings. "I thought you said there were booby traps?" she said to no one in particular.
"I'm certain we will come across them in time. Meanwhile - my hat!" The Earth King cried, interrupted.
Looks like they'd found and triggered the first one, Zuko thought dryly as he watched in morbid fascination. He'd expected to have to jump to the rescue immediately but actually … Kuei was doing just fine.
"My hat!" Kuei cried as he felt the stiff fabric lift off of his head. He reflexively reached for it, hopping after the light of the glowing crystal encircling the rim. Kuei needed that hat, and not just for the light he'd fastened around it. It was the one concession he'd made to his status on this trip, that belied his nondescript traveling clothes - a academic style with the embroidered royal crest declaring noble-and-well-educated. Besides, no one touched his hat, it simply wasn't done! It would be akin to touching a Fire noble's hair; a cultural faux pas capable of inciting an international incident.
He felt less than academic as he hopped around trying to grab the hat, which had somehow become attached to something that was jerking it every which way. Kuei wished the wood underneath him would stop shifting and clicking; it made it rather difficult when one expected to reach a certain height with a jump and then didn't because one's starting point had been a fraction lower than expected. Or perhaps he was overestimating his own jumping ability, which logic told him was more probable.
Kuei lined up an ambitious vector and made a large spring for the valuable headpiece; this time he'd taken into account the uncertain surface and yelled a triumphant, "HA!" as his hand made contact. He landed with a thump and spun his arms until he gained his balance. A loud crash had followed his landing and shook the floor underneath him, which he now could see by the glow of the crystal was adjacent to the remains of half-rotted roots.
"Oh dear," Kuei rapidly blinked the dust out of his eyes, and covered his nose and mouth to avoid inhaling the rising cloud of mold-dust. Across the way, his companions stared at him wide-eyed. Well, Bosco did, as well as the one eye of Zuko's that could widen (now there was an unpleasant thought, and come to think of it Kuei had never asked how well the firebender could still see, because according to Head Injuries for Idiots: The Definitive Medical Guide partial blindness was highly likely, and speaking of blindness, Toph didn't react to things with her eyes but her general posture agreed with the expression of her sighted-but-to-exactly-what-extent-Kuei-wasn't-sure companion).
"I think this tree is trying to kill us," Zuko said, and added, in Kuei's direction: "Nicely done."
"Thank you," Kuei accepted the compliment graciously, even though he hadn't thought that the other man cared at all about Kuei's hat, as he wiped the dust from his glasses. Settling them back on the bridge of his nose (they were mostly for reading but Kuei would be lying to himself if he didn't admit that they helped more generally too), Kuei re-focused his gaze on the others, and almost fell over in surprise.
"What happened to the floor?" he cried. Where once a massive tangle of roots and vines had been, only a narrow bridge was left. Kuei leaned over the edge of the large branch he was standing on. Below was only darkness.
"You just made it through the first trap." The Fire Lord sounded bemused. "Most of those roots must have been rotten all the way through. What's left is the only safe path across."
Across the way, Toph giggled and thumped Zuko on the arm. "And here I thought you were supposed to be the resident ninja."
"I never said that!" Kuei heard Zuko protest, as he anxiously watched Bosco lumber nonchalantly across to where he was waiting.
Kuei buried his face in the bear's coat the second Bosco came within reach, vaguely faint at the thought of what could have so easily happened had he set a foot wrong. He decided not to think about it; as much as he hated it about himself, it was how he'd dealt with the war at first, but some things took time to process, especially life-threatening things.
By the time Kuei had collected himself, Zuko was guiding Toph over the last steps to Kuei and Bosco's branch, fire extinguished to keep from sparking on any stray dust in the air. Kuei saw the young man scowl by the light of the crystal; he was beginning to be able to interpret the different degrees of that expression, and guessed that this one had to do with an obstacle to their progress.
Less of an obstacle and more of a ...lack of path, Kuei would have to say. From what he could tell, the spacing of the giant boughs was far too generous to be jumpable (he still didn't believe that airship nonsense) and the way up, where he presumed they were headed, was vertical to a fault for the next fifty meters.
"How are we all supposed to get up there?" Zuko's voice echoed Kuei's thoughts. "We didn't bring an airbender! And I can't use that much fire in here!"
Kuei cast about for an answer, and his eyes fell on a familiar pattern etched into the tree bark. "Maybe this will help!" His eyes had adjusted to the crystal light the fastest, it seemed. "Here's the next riddle!" Finally, something less-than-terrifying. He read: "Hard to catch, easy to hold. Can't be seen, unless it's cold."
Hmmmm, this one would require some thought. Perhaps an animal only found in the Arctic?
"Breath," Zuko supplied, and now Kuei was a bit annoyed. He was supposed to be the riddles person!
Kuei must have let his expression show more than he wanted it to, because Zuko looked at him and shrugged. "It's a firebender thing," was his explanation. "Pretty obvious if you've been to the poles."
Which Kuei had, or one of them at least, and he did remember from Fundamental Bending Philosophies that firebenders were obsessed with breathing, but everyone breathed, so he'd thought it was maybe a metaphor for something either more spiritual or more indelicate.
"Hard to catch…" Kuei murmured, something about the phrase tickling his mind. Or was that something actually tickling his shoulder? Kuei swatted at it, hoping that a mosquito-tick colony hadn't taken up residence in the ancient tree. He missed, swatted again, and let out a yelp as the tickly object grabbed his hand. Focusing over his shoulder was hard, because of the glasses, but Kuei could just about make out that the object was the frayed end of a rope, now tangled in his ringed fingers, and right as he grabbed the rope with his other hand to de-tangle himself, it gave a mighty jerk and much to his dismay, started reeling him upwards.
Well. According to the riddle, holding was the easy part. But that wasn't going to stop Kuei from screaming.
"Jealous much?" Toph asked, and Zuko had to stop himself from scowling as he paused in his narration, although Kuei's screams had probably gotten the general idea across anyway. There wasn't a point in hiding things from Toph, even if they were standing on wood so he had half a chance of succeeding.
"I mean… it does look like fun," he said wistfully, watching Kuei fly screaming out of sight.
"Riddles don't do it for you?" Toph was clearly enjoying this turn of events.
"Not when they're so common sense," Zuko complained. Honestly, a little challenge would be nice! "Duck," he said in a bored tone, as a wooden box on ropes landed nearby with a thunk, sending root remnants flying. The impact jarred open a door.
"What's that?" asked Toph.
"The boring way up," Zuko sighed, and guided the three of them inside, trying his best to maneuver so that the rock-armored Toph was between himself and the bear. He pulled the door to, looked around and released a catch. The box started rising up at a sedate pace.
"Sooo," Toph started, breaking the awkward silence that had started to set in as two humans and a bear tried to get comfortable while squashed together. "Think you're the kind of person who would have made it past any of those traps?"
"I don't see why not!" Zuko replied, only slightly indignant.
"You would have cut the rope the second it got caught on your hand. If it had even managed to do that in the first place."
That was hard to argue with. But - "I might have been quick enough to get over the rotten roots without falling through."
"Yeah, but is that the point? Sure, you and I are great benders and athletes. Kuei is .. not." Bosco huffed, taking insult on his absent friend's behalf. "It's true!" Toph defended herself. "If this tree really does decide who's worthy to look at a bunch of dusty scrolls, then it's probably looking for people who have an open mind rather than ones who are trying to outsmart it."
"It's a tree, Toph. How smart can it be?" Zuko said, although he was fully aware that with his luck this would find some spectacular way to get thrown back in his face. "Besides, I've dedicated plenty of time to the search for knowledge. It's more than half my job these days, since no one seems to remember how all the little details used to work in peace time. And Avatar hunting used to be mainly an academic exercise until Aang got de-iced."
"I'm betting it's different the way Kuei goes about it," Toph countered. "You go for the heart of the matter. You want answers. I think Kuei… he just wants to know things." That was a kind way of saying he had an obsessive one-track mind, Zuko thought. But Toph certainly had listed two valid points.
Bosco had also nodded along to her assessment, and added an expressive shrug that Zuko was familiar with from Uncle's wordless apologetic explanations to others whenever Zuko had started going on about getting his honor back.
"More like a need, even," Zuko agreed with the bear as the box rocked to a halt. He opened the door and they stepped gratefully out to greet a shaken-yet-relieved-looking Kuei.
"Well… I'm going with Kuei now." Toph tugged her hand out from Zuko's and attached herself to a surprised Earth King. "Seems like more fun stuff happens around this guy."
"Toph!" Zuko protested, mainly because now he was stuck with the fearsome Bosco, but it was true as they barely made it an airship's length further before a wall shot up in front of his face, separating him and Bosco from Toph and Kuei.
Kuei knew his luck would have to run out some time. He was almost glad that it had, so that he could get on with the major freak out he'd wanted to have for the last half hour but hadn't found time to, between all the escaping-death-through-sheer-dumb-luck he'd been doing.
But it certainly had run out in spectacular fashion. Solid wooden walls came up out of nowhere, trapping him with Toph inside a dark room with no exit. If Kuei was any less relieved at the return of stark reality, he might have screamed. As it was, his throat was already a bit sore from his heart-stopping ride as an involuntary passenger on a pulley. At least the ground was nice and soft here under his shoes, a pleasant change after stubbing his toes countless times on knots in branches or roots.
Come to think of it, it might be too soft. Kuei bent down to bring the crystal-light closer, then stood back up with a start as the lichen he found himself staring at released a glowing spore that started slowly drifting up.
"Toph!" He interrupted the earthbender, who was trying to talk the Fire Lord down from his first instinct to play concussive flamethrower. Although Kuei wouldn't mind that solution if it came to it; in his opinion it beat potential death-by-fungal illness (processes of which were vicious and varied, according to Mushroom Madness and Other Ghastly Diseases). "We need to get out of here! The lichen on the floor is releasing some kind of spore. It could be deadly!"
"Look for a locking mechanism of some sort!" Zuko shouted from the outside, and Bosco growled in agreement.
Kuei started hurriedly searching up and down the walls enclosing them, looking for anything that stood out. Nothing that appeared mechanical, but … "I found another riddle!"
"Hurry up and read it!" Toph demanded. He'd let go of her in his hasty search, and scared wasn't a word he would ever associate with the blind earthbender, but she definitely sounded young at the moment.
Kuei squinted at the small text and read: "What makes a house but not a home, and guards the readers of every tome?" Tomes… was that talking about a library of some sort? But who would make a house out of books, that wasn't him anyway? Books were what made a house a home!
"The fourth wall!" Toph cried, and really, couldn't they leave any riddles for him? And what kind of answer was that anyway?
From the outside the trap, he heard Zuko call out urgently. "What? Don't put that! What does that even mean? Was there a first wall?"
At this point, they were ignoring the obvious fact that not all houses were square. "What about igloos?" Kuei asked. "And there's no writing mechanism! How are we supposed to answer, once we find the correct one?"
The spores were drifting higher, and Kuei tried to push them down with his hand but that just resulted in them swirling more in the residual motion of the air. They would reach the shorter Toph within seconds.
"I don't have time to explain!" she shouted, as Kuei described what was happening. "I've got this weird feeling … just trust me, okay? Kuei, point me to the wall that came up last!"
Mute with the horror of an impending inhalation of mystery fungal spores, Kuei grabbed her hand and pointed. Toph wasted no time in twirling a portion of her rock armor into a large disk, then set her feet and thrust her arms forward. The stone flew out, and the fourth wall exploded outwards with a resounding crack.
A brief yell sounded from the other side, before it was abruptly cut off. Kuei found Toph's hand again and led her towards where he could see Bosco's outline in the weak light filtering in from holes in the great tree trunk. With a rush of relief, he noted that the sudden expulsion of the wall had created an eddy that pushed most of the rising spores back into the room they'd originated from. Large portions of the cracked panels were strewn about, and Kuei spotted a familiar pointy-toed boot poking out from underneath one.
"Zuko!" he cried, hauling the heavy board off of the inert firebender. It looked like Zuko had thrown his arms up in a block but the force of the explosion must have been too much; he was motionless, forehead and nose trickling blood. The crystals he'd been wearing must have taken a lot of the impact; they lay in shards around his head and shoulders.
Kuei reported to the blind earthbender. "I think Zuko was standing too close to the wall when you blew it out… he's unconscious!"
"Oops," said Toph, cringing, and then shit got weird.
Inner Azula, watching and a bit jealous that she hasn't gotten a Life Changing Field Trip yet, when she so badly needs one: Someone needs to hit my brother in the head with the fourth wall
Inner Toph, equally jealous: Happy to oblige
Hold on to your hats, people. You are not ready for what happens in the next chapter.
There is a deleted outline-of-a-scene for this chapter here. All of this ephemera will be collected into an Appendix chapter at the end for those with patience ;)
Chapter 4: Chapter the Fourth
"Love is blind, Wade.”
"No. You’re blind.” - Deadpool to Blind Al, Deadpool
Warning: Swords are sharp. Depictions of violence, though technically not graphic since that implies visuals?
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Oh hello, Toph here. I know right? You're probably thinking, whose balls did the Blind Bandit have to fondle to get her very own, first-person POV chapter? Neither of these idiots', I can assure you. Because, first of all, eeewwwww, and secondly, just because I'm finally seventeen doesn't mean this needs a NC-17 rating. Mind out of the gutter, assholes.
Well, at least you're finally going to get something narrated by the real hero here, not Agni's perfect idiot or the hot chick (or not, I don't know what Kuei looks like) bumbling their way through the nerdiest first date ever.
Anyway, I know we're almost exactly right back where we started before getting trapped in that riddle room, but it feels a lot different. Like I know things that maybe I shouldn't, and that I never even wanted to know. Is this what enlightenment is like? I can't imagine so, because there's a lot of alternate timelines, and weird stuff out there about what people think about me and my friends doin' it, and if this is what Air Nomads are striving for, well, let's just say Sozin did them a favor.
And I'm the last person to shy away from something weird, but I wouldn't mind things getting back to normal soon because our current situation isn't sounding so great. Sparky's out cold but the guy's got at least as much plot armor as Aang, or else he'd have permanent brain damage by now from the number of concussions he ought to have suffered. So he's definitely going to wake up fine at precisely the right moment. Scrolls and Snuffles look concerned, maybe I should explain that Zuko is okay, but it would seem that there's not a whole lot of time for that, judging by the screeching hoard of flapping wings headed our way.
And no I wasn't along for that secret tunnel shit (if I had I would clearly have been a badgermole) but that's not going to stop me from crying out: "Wolf-bats!" Although does the song in playing the background now really have to be that song? I've got twelve stones spinning above my palm right now, ready for action, and I'm pretty sure that's a band name that could come up with a much better ass-kicking soundtrack.
Whatever. Secret Tunnel it is, then. Wolf-bats are a bit tricky but at least their sonar helps me out a bit. I don't know what it's like for you sighted people, but hearing-wise I'd compare it to having to pinpoint exactly where in physical space a keyboardist's finger is when listening to them play a concerto in an echoey mountain valley. While I may be the world's greatest earthbender, I've never been that great at geometry so I'd tell Kuei and Bosco to duck if I didn't have the feeling that they were doing that already.
There's a shit-ton of the winged fuckers and the vibrations of their sonar off my makeshift bullets tells me that they're conveniently bunched up for now so I just send the rocks zipping haphazardly through their ranks as quickly as possible. Between the vibrations of stones ripping through wings or battering flesh, it's next to impossible to tell where anything is, and I could really use my snarky seeing-eye firebender right now.
"We've got to get out of here!" I shout to Kuei and Bosco. "Can you wake Zuko up?"
Scrolls, predictably, starts spouting off a whole bunch of medical jargon that I think sums up to, head injuries are terrifying and he doesn't know what to do, and if I had time I would feel bad because that one was my fault. But then Bosco starts sounding like a proper predator and I hear the swish of fur not far away, and a couple of shrieks that indicate he's picking off the stragglers for me, and I want to cheer. Fucking finally, the bear is starting to act more like its armadillo-bear cousins, aka, actual bears.
"Kuei!!" I yell again, juggling high-speed rocks in large, roughly hemispheric trajectories around where I presume we're gathered. "Which way is out? May I remind you, I can't see." It's always a struggle getting to used to someone who doesn't know that they need to check their biases, because even though I can pass as sighted, I still experience the world very differently.
Fortunately the yelling seems to kickstart Kuei's brain, and he manages to summon Zuko into a state of disoriented-but-mobile. I'll have to try that trick sometime, hopefully it's not actually an Earth King power but more a side-effect of Kuei having trouble talking like a normal human being sometimes. I'm still kinda busy clearing airspace that I can't sense, but at least there's way less sonar-induced vibrations then there were a minute ago, and as far as I can tell no one's been bitten yet, so way to go me. Kuei leads the way into a place that feels like it's got a low ceiling, a good choice when dealing with death-from-above. Bosco's actually behind me now, and I think he mostly fills whatever narrow space we're in, so between that and his occasional teeth-snapping, I gather that we're safe for now.
You wanna bet how long that's going to last?
Spoiler alert: longer than I expected. You can skip two paragraphs to the boss battle now if you're really in a hurry, but then you owe me one. We move as fast as we can along the secret tunnel, with Kuei muttering to himself in the front but overall doing a good job of leading the way away from things that want to eat us. He hesitates sometimes, but never for too long, so maybe there's some alternate routes we could be taking. But he doesn't know to tell the blind girl these things, and my usual source of such information has his hands full just existing right now. I've got no doubts that Zuko could fight off a small army right now if he had to, but since he doesn't have to, it's good that he's keeping quiet and doing whatever headache-reducing trick firebenders seem to have.
Honestly, I thought this tunnel thing would be bigger, because in some places Snuffles really has to squeeze through, and what weird kind of tunnel is made out of wood anyway? Kuei's fleshing out a theory about a labyrinth of hollowed-out branches as we go, and I've got a feeling that he's used to a more attentive audience than we are at the moment. It keeps me occupied a little trying to imagine roughly where we are relative to where we were, but since both of those points of reference are inside a gigantic fucking tree it's a bit like saying how deep we are in the ocean, as in: all the same to me.
At least said tree has taken a break from trying to kill us.
So naturally dramatic timing strikes, and as I get the feeling that we're stepping into a less-constricted space, I also get a very bad feeling about something else.
"What's going on?" I ask, because once again, I'm. Buh-lind. And really getting the full magical experience of what that's like without my earthbending.
"Toph?" Zuko's voice is all blurry edges. "Remember that dream I told you about a few weeks ago?"
Yeah, I do, and that bad feeling is rapidly diving into oh, fuck territory because I'm picking up some faint hissing and there were snakes in that dream. I remember he'd told me that we were swimming through turtle-seal holes when they morphed into turtle-seal-hole-sized serpents. And just before we were digested, I announced, "Now's the part with dual sword-wielding action from the reluctant hero with horrific burn scars who color-coordinates his outfit to hide bloodstains," by which he felt personally victimized.
As I break down what had to be the sixty-fourth wall within so many seconds, I definitely agree with memory-of-a-dream me, and wish that there were some literal walls I could tear apart too. You've all seen what I can do with twelve rocks, so imagine what it'd be like if I had sixty-four walls' worth. Or even four.
The hissing is super loud now, and coming from multiple angles, and Kuei squeaks out: "Tree-serpent!" which ha! Scrolls made a grammar mistake by not using the plural, and also I hate serpents, and Serpent's Passes, and these things sound turtle-seal-tunnel-huge and I especially hate that.
Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?
The sound and sense of metal vibrating as it's freed from its sheath tells me that Zuko's already on the move. "You might have had a point about why I wear red," he calls.
"Monkey-feathers," I sigh, because despite our earlier elevator talk, he's definitely about to do some pretty stupid and extremely bloody solving-the-problem-with-swords. Not that I can really complain about it, at least, not like you guys can. Because I've been told that, despite the carnage, Zuko's bone-headed stunts look pretty cool, and here you are with a blind narrator. Gotta tell you, an extremely ratings- and budget-friendly choice of the producers. The way I figure it, since the studio clearly can't afford the rights to another Gaang member or even another woman so that this thing passes the Bechdel test, the easiest way to bluff their way through an action sequence is to reduce it to a series of thumps, bumps, clangs, hisses (the serpents), growls (Zuko and Bosco), terrified moans (Kuei), long-suffering sighs (myself) and a pervasive scent of iron that means large quantities of blood are being liberated from various tree-serpent-y veins.
So yeah, that pretty much covers the boss battle and we can go on. Ha ha, just kidding, I can sense pretty well where metal is because it vibrates when it's in motion, and fuck lazy writing, so….
REEEE - MIIIXXX.
(Duh. It can't be a montage if it's sound-only).
Some light-footed steps gain altitude rapidly, followed by a swoosh and a crack of bone, or maybe tooth, because do snakes even have bones? I didn't study zoology, ask Kuei if you really want to know. But then the sword-harmonics are muted and there's this awful tearing sound, and damn these serpents are big because it sounds like Zuko's sliced it pretty well but he's also getting a rapid downward assist courtesy of gravity and that tearing sound isn't stopping. That paints a gruesome picture for me though of where exactly to send some rocks, and they connect with solid thumps in some places and squishes in others, which is both disgusting and so not PG.
Zuko's gained his altitude back now - the serpent might be partially responsible for that because even Zuko can't climb that fast - and given the volume of the hiss/screeching he's probably going straight for a head that wants to eat him. I know the way Sparky fights pretty well by now, after mopping the floor with him on a regular basis, so if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that he let the thing pick him up and is going to shove a sword or fireball straight down its throat in a couple of seconds. True to form, he goes with the sword option, which makes sense because why risk getting a fireball spat back out into your own face, and the angle and speed at which the metal is moving suggests that he lopped the head right off.
And I can really tell why it's easier to fit combat into a kid's show with bending, because you can always blow something far away or bury it under rocks or wash it away or hide it in flames, but with weapons things just… stay there and bleed where everyone can hear it, like the way the head-stump is waving around now like a broken hose… wait a minute. What's that sound? It can't be what I'm thinking of, because Zuko's an efficient fighter who has no reason to go out of his way to make the head-stump into a fucking kebap.
"The fuck is this thing?" I hear Zuko shout, and he's not even trying to swear like Aang anymore for Kuei's sake, so it must be bad.
"It's a … it's a hydra!" Kuei breathes from where he's huddled near me, but not near enough to interfere with my bending which I appreciate. He yells it up to Zuko now. "It's a hydra! The heads grow back! The only way to stop it is by cutting off all seven heads at once!"
What the actual fuck? Seven heads? On one tree-serpent? Well, that does explain the overabundance of hissing and Kuei's use of the singular. But even though I'm not a math genius like Kuei might be or even a budget aficionado like Zuko is, I can see a clear problem. Zuko's only got two swords, which leaves five additional heads that need to roll. I ask Kuei to indicate roughly how wide the necks are before shaping all the stone I've got into five larger-than-I-would-like-them-to-have-to-be ax heads.
"Ready!" I yell in the direction of vibrating metal.
"Kinda … busy … here, Toph," Zuko grunts out from ever-changing locations high up in the air/vine/branch/undetectable-to-earthbending structure. And no shit, Sherlock, I can hear that for myself. The hydra sounds pissed.
I'm a bit pissed myself, because this is far from our usual MO and I honestly feel pretty useless right now. Normally if we're fighting something this big and bad and it's just the two of us, I go in as the metal- or rock-covered battering ram and Zuko picks off any aerials until he gets bored and snarky and comes in with the concussive firepower. And while he was definitely A Moody Teen until he became A Moody Person In Their Early Twenties a little over a year ago, I think that's as far as I'll look into that AU, because then the role of ninja electricity-throwing girlfriend would fall to Azula, and that's just messed up.
The point is, I'm not too happy just standing down here chucking rocks as fast as I can at whatever spots Zuko just hit. I want to be able to do some real damage, but since I can barely tell where anything is and I have a finite amount of stone, it would be hit-or-miss with mostly miss, no matter how big this thing is.
Ugh, firebending is officially the worst. Zuko's figured out that he's not going to burn down this tree if he keeps his swords inside the tree-serpent as he lights them on fire, and the smell of scorched meat washing over us now is honestly enough to turn Sokka vegetarian. Oh and Kuei just threw up. Gross. I did not need to hear that. Guess the date's not going well after all. Mai would probably think all this bloodshed is hot, as long as it didn't get all over her, and now I'm beginning to see why Zuko hasn't tried to make an effort with anyone else since they broke up. It can't be easy to find a date who appreciates the more gory things in life.
There's a large crash and a shout, and I sense five slivers of metal being flung out and firmly sunk into flesh. I'm starting to grin now. Targets acquired. Thanks to the hydra wiggling all over trying to kill Sparky, I have a decent sense of where those heads are because of the embedded metal-in-motion. I send my ax heads what I think is a safe distance above my targets, and feel them slicing through mostly tree-related organic matter on their way into position. I just hope that when I drop them, they'll have a clear shot down.
"Hold!" Zuko orders, and he doesn't sound close enough to be in sword-range of the two non-metal-marked heads, so even though I hate it I continue doing nothing. From the way the heads are getting frantic, I won't have too long to wait. Zuko just needs to get into position somewhere between the remaining two heads without getting eaten and then …
"NOW!" he yells. I shove the ax-heads down, and feel the impact vibrate through the stone just as the hum of metal is arrested in flesh nearby for a second before the blades shear through.
Seven very large, still-hissing heads are definitely plummeting towards where the three of us are currently gathered. So. Disgusting. Kuei sounds pretty shaken, clinging to Bosco and moaning softly.
There's a scraping noise of scales on bark and I'm guessing that Zuko is riding the collapsing corpse down as best he can. It's starting to fall even farther below us when I detect a shiver of metal as Zuko leaps off, and I hope he can see where he's going because I think there's a lot of hydra-heads down here and … of course.
He's gonna do a superhero landing, wait for it!
Something cracks as he lands, one blade braced against whatever variety of wood we're currently standing on and the other flung up behind him for either balance or visual effect. Probably the latter, not that I give a damn. What I am concerned about is whether he broke his kneecap or something else, because I don't have enough earth left to sled anyone anywhere, and Bosco's not feeling up to carrying anyone.
Zuko stands up all right though, if a bit fatigued, but of course this ride's not over yet because suddenly there's more hissing, higher-pitched than before but no less terrifying.
"Run!" Kuei cries, and so we do, and at least while he was busy throwing up the Earth King seemed to have scoped a decent route out of here. Zuko's taking up the rear and muttering something like sorry, I didn't see that there, and naturally that's how I learned that he superhero-landed on a tree-serpent egg, the utter imbecile (although that does imply that we were standing in its nest all along), and now seven baby-heads of death are after us.
Thankfully it seems like the baby hydra-legs are shorter than ours (fine. Mine. Mine are the limiting factor here, you wanna make something out of that?) because this running thing is getting old fast. We've got some good distance between ourselves and the nest now, and there must be more light about because I don't hear the crackle of a small flame anymore. How much higher can this tree possibly go?
"Look!" Kuei gasps, and of course I don't, but I do keep myself from crashing into his back after he suddenly stops. "I think this is it!"
And finally, the plot magic that the doctor ordered. We could have really used that a thousand words ago, and can we get some Deus Ex Washing Machina to get some of the snake blood out of our clothes? No? Trying to do some fanservice with a shirtless Zuko scene in the next chapter? That's still no reason to keep me all gooked up, and I did not sign on for nude scenes. I just don't get how bloody clothing is plot-relevant anymore and wasn't it just a heavy-handed attempt at a fourth wall break within a fourth wall break within a fourth wall break in the first place? I don't understand how this all works, but it seems to me like someone has bitten off more than they can chew with this chapter.
I understand even less how Kuei manages to open the door, but suddenly it doesn't matter because I can see.
We're in a decent-sized hall with stone-ish floors and walls, or three of them anyway, and even though the stone is weird and holds some memory of being alive, I'm so happy I could punch someone.
All the potential targets in my vicinity, however, are staring horror-struck at the empty space where the fourth wall should be. I barely need earthbending to tell that their pulses are pounding. Zuko (and Bosco, interestingly enough) is braced to fight, and Kuei is prepared to flee, but no one's doing anything. The hairs on the back of my neck are pricking up too now, because I can feel the shuddering weight of eyes.
"Toph," Zuko says, and his voice is strange and quiet and scared like I've never heard it before. "Can you put back that wall?"
Yes I can, because I'm the greatest earthbender in the world, and only then do I notice the fragments of oddly organic stone lying not far away. I move into stance and find the patterns in the grains where they remember being together, will them into position and push, and can you fucking STOP STARING AT ME.
The wall locks firmly into place, and I feel the stone find its original form all on its own - great double doors covered in symbols that fall slowly open. I shake strange shadows out of my head, and as I walk through I notice that my clothes smell like freshly washed linen.
Me, attempting to write a nice tone-consistent fic for once: Well, I've solved the overpowered-characters problem with wood as the Great Equalizer, but it would still be a pity if Toph couldn't break down a wall or two or three or four ...fuck. Of course she can break the fourth wall, she's the greatest earthbender in the world. And apparently the greatest plotbender too. Holy shit, am I really going to write 30K-ish words and risk alienating all my readers just to feature one scene of Deadpool!Toph and the phrase Deus Ex Washing Machina? Oh yes. You bet I am.
Fortunately for you all, this writer's got no budget for a Deadpool!Toph 2, so it's back to our regularly scheduled wholesomeness-with-very-few-sharp-edges from here on out.
The proper Herculean-version of the hydra would have proved much harder to kill so I took a different approach here.
Yes, that's the full Eldritch horrors of the fandom our heroes are staring into at the end there.
I remembered html, so here's a link to a scene-deleted-from-outline
"There’s nothing we can’t do if we work hard, never sleep, and shirk from all other responsibilities in our lives." - Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation
Zuko dabbed at the blood threatening to drip into his good eye as he stepped through the great double doors. It had to be his good eye, didn't it, it wasn't like he actually wanted to be able to see clearly when laying eyes on a place that no one had seen for hundreds of years. And wasn't that strange, that his hand hadn't just rubbed weird iron-tinged-sticky-sap-blood onto his face; he was pretty sure he'd been up to his elbows in tree-serpent innards at some point. Maybe the fire had burned it off, or the lingering fuzzy-headedness that made it difficult to recollect the details of recent events was to blame.
The other three had the same slightly dazed expression so from the looks of it, at least that wasn't a unique side-effect of getting knocked out by the fourth wall. There had been spores floating around inside the trap Toph and Kuei had encountered, perhaps enough of them had gotten out to cause a reaction? Or maybe - and in Kuei's case, Zuko was absolutely certain - it was that they were finally standing in Yi Ming's Secret Archive, and it was incredible.
The chambers were flooded with a pale amber light instead of green crystal glow, as veins of fossilized sap reflected and trapped sunlight from the outside. From the grand hall in which they were standing, rooms and reading nooks large and small branched off organically under arches; vine-like columns surrounded by packed bookshelves supported domed ceilings meticulously muraled with different shades of wood. Shelves stuffed with books and scrolls shadowed every wall, and even older records carved into obelisks stood as testaments to history, or were grouped into stands of baked clay tablets.
Zuko had pictured a hermit's collection in a cave when he'd heard of the Archive. Something of this magnitude and grandeur was a monument of knowledge and cultural heritage. And it was going to take a very, very long time to search for records of Xaifun prefecture, he thought, reminding himself of the purpose for this excursion in the first place. Where would they even begin? How was the Archive organized?
Well, the cabinet over there definitely had a bunch of old maps in it, judging by the shapes of the drawers. But was that mural in the shadows behind the bookshelves of Avatar Bingai, the Water-cycle Avatar from the Earth Kingdom said to be responsible for the Great Salt Famine?
Torn, Zuko told himself to focus and went over to see if the cabinet was locked.
Kuei had died and gone to the Spirit World, only this wasn't the Spirit World, it was Book World and so much better. He wondered if he could relocate the living quarters of the palace to adjoining rooms, but no, that wouldn't work because then they'd have to move the entire Earth Kingdom capitol and no one would go for that. There weren't even any walls out here!
Not that they would even need walls if everyone had knowledge, in Kuei's opinion. Then even common people could know what was best for each other and the Kingdom, and how to be productive and content, and there wouldn't be any more need for crime or war or greed or even kings if he was lucky. Just scholars to help settle disputes over interpretation and spread knowledge to the other Nations.
And there was so much knowledge in this Archive - who knew what he could learn from its contents if he had enough time. If not everyone could share in it, perhaps he could learn how to make his people happy as a good and wise Earth King. Kuei had not yet found the answer to this long-standing puzzle, but he hadn't given up hope that the key to all his struggles was out there somewhere.
A young voice broke him out of his reverie.
"What kind of earth is this?" Toph was struggling to shape a fragment of the earth in question into a statuette.
"It's petrified wood!" Kuei exclaimed, glad to take a brief respite from the near-impossible decision of what to look at first. "We're underground now, right?"
"Yes," Toph said, frowning as she confirmed the statement. "This is weird. We went up, didn't we?"
Kuei couldn't make out exactly what Zuko was doing with a small knife to the lock on what looked like a map cabinet, but he certainly heard the firebender call out: "The tree was grown into the canyon wall behind it, high up."
"When wood is underground long enough, in the right environment, mineral deposits carried by water form a mold of the cells that last long after the cellulose itself decays. So now it's effectively stone." Kuei explained, admiring the colorful ways the swirls on the wall mimicked the patterns of living wood. "Although I suppose the same process could be artificially replicated, by skilled enough benders of all four elements."
"Neat," said Toph, then added, delighted: "Does this make me the world's first - and - greatest - woodbender?"
"I'm pretty sure a lot of earthbenders could bend that stuff, Toph," Zuko said dryly, then Kuei heard a soft curse as Zuko's fingers slipped and he dodged to keep the knife from landing in his foot.
Toph turned in his direction with an annoyed huff. "Yeah? Well then good luck finding someone else to metalbend that lock open for you."
Kuei let them to their banter because he had caught sight of the gold-embossed titles on a set of hefty tomes, and could that really be the original Charter and Bylaws of the Unification of the Earth Kingdoms? "You do know that traditional Earth Kingdom archives always have a map room, right?" he called as he ran over. Well, walked quickly. Kuei had tired himself out pretty well with all the running from various forms of death earlier.
Zuko straightened indignantly. "There's a whole room of maps?! Where?" He didn't wait for Kuei to answer the question before moving off to search - probably wise, Kuei reflected, because even if the Earth Kingdom was agreed on what contents an archive warranted, the way in which they were arranged was a constant point of contention amongst librarians.
Kuei knew he should probably follow the firebender, since they were here to find a prefecture map after all, but there was so much debate about inconsistencies between the Charter copies held by different former kingdoms, it was probably his duty as the Earth King to find out once and for all which version was correct. And oooh, On the Origin of the Four Nations, that sounded like a scholarly examination of the standard creation myths, and Kuei had always wondered if there was any truth to those.
Kuei couldn't decide which volume to pick up first.
Zuko heard the footsteps, but he didn't expect the massive stone tablet that slammed down onto the table next to him. On top of a five-hundred-year-old map, and had the ancient tablet just cracked?!
"Toph!" he shouted, but before he could chew her out properly for harming not one but two priceless artefacts, the tablet repaired itself with a wiggle of earthbending fingers.
"Hey Zuko, why's this writing different than the usual squiggles people use?" Toph chose to be oblivious to Zuko's anger, which was not unusual. "It feels more … repetitive."
Zuko forced himself to take a pair of deep breaths before he looked at the tablet, which had text either bent into or chipped out of its surface. "It's an alphabetical system," he explained. "Each symbol represents a sound, instead of using a different character for each word. I didn't know the Earth Kingdom used it at all, actually. We use it in the Fire Nation for official documents and stuff, since it makes filing easier. But it actually belongs to an older language, which we still use to some extent … what you're looking at on that tablet is in the common tongue, just written differently." That was actually quite interesting, albeit a bit confusing for his brain which had at first glance taken the writing for a bunch of gibberish.
"How many symbols are there?" Toph asked. "It doesn't seem like a lot."
"Twenty-four," Zuko replied. "Fourteen consonants and ten vowels. It's kind of based off of the shapes the mouth makes to produce those sounds, except for the vowels which is more about harmony…" His voice trailed off. Toph's face had taken on the look of evil pleasure she got when she was about to bury him in one of their sparring matches.
"What?" Zuko asked cautiously, dreading the answer.
"Teach me to read."
Kuei winced reflexively; technically this wasn't a library but still, would it kill the Fire Lord to have a bit of decorum? He looked up to see a frazzled-looking Zuko drag in a stubborn earthbender by the wrist. Priceless stone tablets trailed in her wake, levitated by her bending.
"Can you please explain to Toph that we don't read whole pages at once? And that it's not okay to earthbend new inscriptions into thousand-year-old historical records!"
"But I can sense everything at once," Toph protested. "Is that not how seeing works? How am I supposed to know what order to put things in? And how else am I supposed to practice writing?"
"A valid premise," Kuei broke in, forcing himself to focus on Zuko's original question to avoid a panic attack at the follow-up statement. Besides, the firebender's expression was a sure sign of more yelling to come if Kuei didn't do something now. "Naturally we can also see an entire page at once. We've simply trained our brains - and our eyes along with them - to follow a specific path and read the words one at a time."
"Then how do you ignore all the other letters? They don't stop being there!" Toph was probably just as frustrated as Zuko, but thankfully less loud.
Kuei considered. "When I was a learning to read, I used to trace my finger along the characters as I read. Like this."
He winced internally at touching the ancient tablets without gloves, but if they'd held under the young earthbender's abuse they could survive some skin oils. Kuei traced slowly left-to-right, top-to-bottom. He wasn't as used to this script as Zuko might be, but he'd learnt it nonetheless both because it was easy and because the standard script had only come about five hundred years post-Unification.
"How does that help?" wondered Toph, still grumpy.
Kuei sighed, took her right index finger and placed it lightly over the first two characters in the top-left corner. "I don't know if you can turn off your earthbending-sense, but perhaps try focusing on how the stone feels to your fingers. Can you make out the shapes of the letters you're touching right now?"
"Of course," Toph sniffed haughtily.
"What are they?"
"Tee … ooh," Toph sounded out. "It says, 'To'."
"Correct!" Kuei beamed. "Now, you can still sense all the other letters on the tablet, right? Everything that your fingers aren't touching? Don't actively try, just let me know if they're there in your… earth-sense."
"Well, of course. It would be louder and clearer if there was an actual vibration passing through the material at the moment, but -"
"Louder! That's it!" Kuei exclaimed, and ignored the look he got from both Toph and Zuko. "Are the letters your finger is on louder than the others?"
"Kind of? It's different with touch. But I think I know what you're getting at, Scrolls. If I can sense the right area as louder than the rest, this reading stuff might make more sense." Toph's brow furrowed in concentration as she did something with her earthbending that Kuei couldn't comprehend. Nothing appeared or disappeared from the ancient tablets, though, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Even though he didn't know what she was doing, Kuei couldn't stop a big smile from spreading across his face as Toph's expression lit up in revelation.
"I'm learning with Kuei now. He's a way better teacher," Toph announced, sticking out her tongue at Zuko.
"Fine with me," the firebender grumbled, "I was perfectly happy with my maps before you came barging in."
"What's his problem?" Kuei muttered. He had been enjoying the moment, which was effectively ruined when the firebender turned to stomp back to the map room.
"No one told you?" Toph said sweetly, although her grin was sharp enough to put a tiger-shark to shame. "Sunshine is extra fun when he hasn't slept."
Kuei shuddered and wondered which degree of fun Zuko it was who had almost double-handedly filleted then decapitated a gigantic mythical creature some hours ago. Then his survival instincts kicked in and he deliberately stopped thinking about what that meant. He turned back to his charge, who was mouthing out sounds as she moved a finger over the tablet. She was doing pretty well, actually, but running the sounds together before she would backtrack to separate them out into individual words.
"It seems to me like you've already got a good grasp of the alphabet," Kuei observed. "What will help as you progress is knowing how they're grouped into syllables and words. Feel these two here? You can have a consonant and a vowel together, or you can have two consonants and one vowel."
She was a quick learner, Kuei was delighted to note. He supposed that it took more than just natural talent to hone an art to the point where one could call oneself the world's greatest. "Of course, you'll have to learn the standard script too, eventually," he mused, mind leaping ahead with the possibilities. Sure, there were huge limitations to not being able to read paper, but if she had a good head for mirrored characters she could read the printing press blocks themselves. In the meantime, there were a few options. "Some good reading material still kept in stone form are the Epic of the Dragon-Bird, or Descent into the Eighth Circle."
"I don't want to read a bunch of stupid histories," his student said, quashing all of Kuei's blossoming aspirations.
He gave her an arch look. "These are epic poems, young lady, and they tell the stories of the greatest heroes ever to walk the Earth Kingdom. In a heavily embellished and sometimes quite graphic style, honestly, but that's literature for you."
"Oh. That sounds okay." Toph reconsidered, then added: "Don't tell Zuko I said that."
Later, after his pupil, who had been both more attentive and diligent than Kuei expected, had gone to take a nap, Kuei put down his book. He couldn't take yet another variation of the evil-ice-spirits-kidnap-fair-maiden story that seemed to have been wildly popular a thousand years ago. How he would ever be able to figure out which version the bickering clans were referring to was beyond him.
Kuei got up to stretch and decided to check if Zuko had made any progress in the map room. The large table was covered with the beautiful, ancient documents when Kuei got there, but there was no sign of the firebender. Except… Kuei paused as he was about to leave the room. The lamp-flame was steadily growing and shrinking, without so much as a flicker.
Heading deeper into the room, Kuei found the person he was looking for. Curled up on the floor, one arm cushioning his head and the other laid across his swords, Zuko was asleep, the flame following his peaceful breathing.
It had been a long day - two days? - Kuei had to admit he'd lost track of time, but he didn't mind, not when there was so much research to be done. But perhaps right now it was time for rest.
The alphabet Zuko and Kuei are teaching Toph is Hangul, used to write Korean. It is indeed possible to learn it in a day (as is Cyrillic for people used to using Roman alphabet), try it sometime! While Lao or Thai might be more appropriate, those scripts have 40+ consonants and trust me, not quick to learn.
Original chapter outline/notes included:
Zuko: "There's a whole room of maps?!"
[what a nerd.]
deleted scene link
"If you want to be a good archaeologist, you've gotta get out of the library" - Indiana Jones, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Everyone was looking really alert for the first time since their adrenaline-aided entrance to the archive, Zuko noted. Sleep and a bracing cup of tea (taste was highly subjective so Zuko refused to call the tea he made bad) clearly hadn't hurt.
Kuei had already managed to fill a small stack of papers with notes the previous night, and he was absently going over a few as he took cautious sips. Toph had downed her cup in one go and was now alternately eating breakfast and finger-combing her wild black hair into submission.
"We need a plan," Zuko announced, abruptly shattering the early morning quiet.
Kuei looked up, blinking slowly. "Right," he sighed. "I suppose we don't have enough supplies to camp out here for a few months?"
With great effort, Zuko restrained himself to exhaling only the smallest lick of flame. "No. We do not," he grit out. "We have supplies for two more days, and even with rationing, more than a week is out of the question. Unless you really want my uncle hunting us down with a shirshu while flirting outrageously with its very attractive, much younger owner." He grimaced reflexively at the image.
"Oh dear," Kuei said, which really did not begin to cover either situation. "Well then. I actually drew up a research plan last night. Or was it last afternoon? Evening? In any case. I presume your search of the maps has not yet yielded any significant results?"
"That's right," Zuko answered. "The surveyors seem to have neglected most of the northern prefectures in that century." He did not add that he'd gotten more than a little distracted by some nifty little navigation tricks that had been stuffed into the margins of some of the ancient star charts.
"Hmmmm. Well, thankfully there are plenty of other sources of information we can use to deduce clan homelands!" Kuei at least did not sound too discouraged. "Trade and marriage records would be a good place to start. Traditionally, official records of such binding contracts were inscribed in clay or stone, depending on the importance of the parties involved. Toph, perhaps you can go over those?"
"Me? Kuei, I learned to read yesterday." Toph sounded dubious.
"Oh, you certainly shouldn't do much reading! In fact, it's much better if you don't, and you're definitely the best person for the job. There are thousands of records, and we're only interested in a few people or places. And you said you can sense everything on a tablet at once, right?"
"Give me a few hours and it'll be more than one tablet," Toph boasted, but she did seem more enthusiastic now.
"Wonderful! I'll show you what people and place names are important to search for." It was a pity, Zuko thought, that Toph couldn't see Kuei's kind and excited smile.
The Earth King turned to him next. "Zuko, you shouldn't give up on the maps just yet. However, there are some histories that might help as well, if only for context. I've prepared a list, although I haven't had time yet to peruse all the titles available here, naturally…"
Zuko's eyebrow rose as he took the small piece of parchment Kuei handed him, which was covered in even smaller, cramped cursive characters. He plucked a fine-tipped brush out from under a pile of documents strewn haphazardly about the tabletop, determined to decipher the script into something legible.
"So what will you be doing, Professor?" Toph asked in the meantime, curious.
The Earth King brightened in a way that even Zuko's most energizing tea couldn't accomplish. "Well, besides the obvious historical context we need to consider both the mythos of the time and the way disputes were settled, so the legal and political systems. Of course there's cultural and sociological factors that might come into play as well, and --"
"Sounds fascinating," Toph interrupted, in a way that told Zuko she'd lost interest somewhere around "historical context". Zuko himself was rather intrigued, but he had to agree with Toph when she bellowed: "Time to get to work, lily-livers!"
"Oops. Force of habit," she explained to Kuei's shocked posture a second later, as she prepared to leave the main hall.
"Just one small problem," Zuko said, tossing back the dregs of his tea, which really was pungent today. He pointed to the scrawl on the parchment that he'd been futilely trying to copy out into his own normal-sized, military-precise script. "I can't read this, Kuei."
Kuei became gradually aware that someone was trying to get his attention, but he was reluctant to leave his happy head-space because there had been a bending ethics tribunal until the thirtieth Earth King came along, and some of these cases were fascinating. Suddenly, a loud metallic clap sounded from across the great hall, and Kuei looked up, startled.
"You're welcome," Toph called from where she was bending two pieces of black stone back together, and Kuei changed his focus to the near distance to find a frowning firebender waving a sheaf of notes at him from across the table.
"I've done all the readings and I still have no idea how clan councils worked," Zuko said to him, slumping into a chair. Part of Kuei's mind noted that if he needed to defeat the Fire Lord, dense Earth Kingdom histories should be his weapon of choice. The other, larger part sympathized.
"You'll have to be more specific than that," Kuei reprimanded gently. "Time period? Ethnic group? Scale of the problem at hand?"
"Besides the obvious present-day Ling Shi and Xenbai -- which are both technically Shi, and thanks-to-my-grandfather's-poorly-drawn-boundaries international incident?" If Zuko was feeling snarky, Kuei had learned from Toph, it meant that he was either in a good mood or about to light something on fire. Kuei hoped desperately for the former.
"There's a relevant case study during the reign of the forty-fifth Earth King. Three clans were disputing fishing and sailing rights in the lake they all bordered. The first two clans, whose villages were located on directly opposite shores, did the logical thing and decided that the border should be drawn in the middle of the lake. The third, which was really just a collection of houses near where the river flowed into the lake, decided that the entire lake should be treated as belonging to the Earth Kingdom. Not even just Shandong Prefecture, the Kingdom itself! Which, you would think, would invite both the King of Shandong and the Earth King get directly involved, but they didn't! So then there were two very different, competing sets of rules governing the same body of water, and they just left it that way! How is that even possible?"
Kuei mulled it over before speaking. "I suppose the root of it comes down to a big difference in our cultures. The Earth Kingdom is vast and we have many ethnic groups, which leads to the clans and, by extension, different expressions of culture. The Fire Nation, despite being an archipelago, still manages to be culturally uniform, due largely to a shared religion-based value system and resource interdependency." He waited for Zuko's nod of confirmation before continuing. "So a big part of the role of a regional monarch -- or even of the Earth King -- is to make sure that no one group is favored too much over another one. The practical side-effect of that is, as you've noticed, the simultaneous existence of multiple sets of laws that are equally valid."
"That makes no sense," Zuko said, gesticulation escalating in exasperation. "Maybe I can see how that could work for cultural matters like the arts and sciences. But some things -- like distributing fishing rights in a prefecture's area of highest economic output -- are too important. By trying to respect every little village's sovereignty, you're compromising the prosperity of the entire region!"
"Well, yes," Kuei said. "What's wrong with that?"
"If that were farmland and there was a drought? People die, Kuei. Your people."
Technically, his people were the people of Ba Sing Se, and even though they made up half the population of the Earth Kingdom, Kuei could hardly claim to be responsible for every soul in the country directly. "I'm afraid that's just how it is sometimes. And anyway, the purpose of the clans is to take care of their own. Sacrificing traditions for the sake of temporary gain isn't our way. The Earth Kingdoms were independent before they unified, and just because we use the singular now instead of the plural doesn't mean that the implications of their right to self-determination has disappeared."
"Ignoring the fact that you'd hypothetically allow entire villages to starve, which, believe me, we will get back to -- " Kuei would have to refresh his memory on how the Fire Islands worked; he'd assumed they were like prefectures themselves, but the way the Fire Lord was talking about them now seemed to contradict that hypothesis. "What exactly do you mean by self-determination?" Zuko finished.
Um, what it sounded like? Kuei tried to find a less irreverent way to phrase that. "Each clan chose which prefecture it's a part of, and each prefecture decides -- or did, once upon a time -- whether or not it's part of the Earth Kingdom. Of course, Unification was so long ago now that probably none of the local monarchs remember that they can technically secede. Unification was a grand political experiment in a time that required bold choices, so even though it went against the individuality of the clans, it somehow worked. And ever since then it's become our tradition, so we haven't changed it."
Zuko's frown turned from severe to thoughtful. "So each and every one of the hundreds of clans had to choose to belong to the Earth Kingdom? What if they'd chosen not to?"
Kuei chuckled. "You'd be surprised at how many did not. There would be towns of varying sizes all throughout the continent that weren't part of the Kingdom. It didn't take long for them to realize the benefits of joining, though. The last independent clan was annexed under the tenth Earth King. And when a big decision faces the nation, it's still tradition for the Earth King to consult each regional king, who also consults with the clan heads."
"Well, that explains why everything takes so spirits-forsaken long," Zuko grumbled. "Do most of the clans at least operate on a similar political system?"
"Yes, although there are several fascinating exceptions," Kuei replied. "On big decisions, the vast majority hold a referendum of the clansmen who meet certain criteria of age, status, et cetera."
"And when you say 'clansmen', do you mean what that sounds like or does that include women too?"
"Naturally just men. Although again, the exceptions … " One of the things that Kuei had just said had really irritated Zuko, who was now aggressively pinching the bridge of his nose. That was going to leave a mark.
"Later I'm going to give you some reading, Kuei, and if that doesn't work I'm sure Toph will be happy to introduce you to feminism. Or as we like to call it, human rights."
There were so many terrifying concepts in that sentence that Kuei didn't know how to respond.
"I like to call it my fists, but thanks anyway, Zuko," the threat herself chimed in from across the large room and behind at least five rows of bookshelves. Kuei jumped. He knew blind people were capable of developing extraordinary hearing to compensate for their lack of sight, but the books never said it would be so creepy.
"Back to the clans. So they're free to make their own decisions regarding day-to-day operations, right?" Zuko asked.
Kuei nodded and waited for him to go on.
"Inter-clan relations are handled by the regional kings, who often pawn the job off onto the Earth King to avoid offending their constituents."
Offended by that interpretation, Kuei asked indignantly: "Examples and references?"
"There's the Silk Road Detour that lasted half a century, covered in Trade in the Times of the Lian Hu-Shang Dispute, and the entire Oasis War documented in Water Rights on the Borders of Ji Hong and Si Wong Prefectures." Zuko was warming to his topic, and was it Kuei's imagination or was the area in the firebender's vicinity heating up too? "Or five years ago when I was trying to get shore-leave rights for the crews of the military transports for troop withdrawals, who were ice-locked for two months in Xaimun, and the ice literally melted before I got a response from you, and the local king had begged off of the responsibility six weeks before that because the docks were run by a different clan."
Kuei had to admit that the young man had ample justification for his unflattering hypothesis, although his reading material of choice was unorthodox. "You're not wrong," he allowed.
"And when the Earth King doesn't want to offend anyone either, do they - does he, I suppose - just turn around and dump the responsibility back onto someone lower down the chain?"
Kuei was really starting to dislike Zuko's way of phrasing things; it dredged up too many personal experiences to let him occupy his happy academic head-space where he could think the clearest. "The amount of delegation can vary greatly depending on the strength of the Earth King in question," he replied stiffly.
Zuko kept frowning. "So none of this would happen if the Earth King told people in power to have a shred of honor and do their Koh-damned jobs?"
Trust a firebender to bring honor into the picture, as if things weren't confusing and insulting enough. "How should I know?" Kuei burst out, finally losing patience. "I'm a terrible king!"
No one really listened to him, he was sure of it, and Kuei knew he couldn't just tell certain people to do certain things. There were rules to politics, and although Kuei had learned them, he still didn't truly understand them. Like so many things in his kingdom, it was just the way things had to be. And this didn't sit well with Kuei at all, intellectually; there were better ways, as history had proven, and even though everything did come with caveats and qualifiers, surely if everyone just sat down and thought about it, they would figure something out?
Unhappy, Kuei pushed his chair back from the table and looked around for Bosco. He could really use a bear hug right now.
Zuko had lit many an inanimate object on fire when wondering why the Earth King did some of the things he did. And while it was true that he could think of many qualities he would like the ruler of the world's largest continent to possess that Kuei didn't, Zuko would not have gone as far to say that Kuei was a terrible king. Naive and indecisive, sure, but not intentionally bad. But then, with Zuko's own family history the bar was set heinously low.
And no matter what Zuko thought of the Earth King professionally, he'd come to learn that Kuei himself was … nice. He was nice, if a bit too earnest for the type of world he'd been forced to take a part in, and he was also the most book-smart person Zuko knew which sometimes translated to tiring to be around because his insights would often make Zuko to have to step back and think hard about complicated subjects.
Not so much this last statement of his. For a start, far to qualitative on an already highly relative scale, and Agni, Zuko had spent too much time in this damned library because he was starting to think like Kuei. He bit back what he wanted to say and tried to channel Katara. She'd always been good at navigating this sensitive personal kind of stuff. "What makes you say that?" he asked, getting up to follow the Earth King to where Bosco was sitting and watching them with big brown eyes.
Well, Zuko already knew he was bad at impressions. Katara would probably have said something more along the lines of "How could you say such a thing about yourself?" along with wide blue eyes and a hug that said I am worried about your sense of self worth, here have some of my belief in you to tide you over.
"It's true, isn't it?" Kuei said, defensive. "There was a war going on, and I had no idea! And when I found out, I trusted all the wrong people and made all the wrong decisions, and then I ran away. Then when I came back, there was just so much to learn that I didn't do anything for fear of doing it wrong, and that was just as bad as doing the wrong thing, so then I overcompensated by doing too much and it still wasn't the right thing!"
Zuko was silent, which was probably exactly the wrong thing to do, as his inner waterbender reminded him. But although he didn't disagree with Kuei's assessment, he thought he was finally starting to understand. "You were trapped, weren't you. Growing up. A king from the age of four, your family murdered. Regents running the country."
Kuei's angry looks were really improving, and Zuko might have felt the heat from that one if the older man hadn't currently been slumped beside Bosco. Zuko knew he probably shouldn't be saying this -- Agni knows how he'd feel if someone started forcing him to relive his darkest childhood memories -- but Zuko knew that just because it hurt didn't mean that you didn't have to debride a wound. He took a seat cross-legged on the floor, and pressed on. "Whoever made the decision to stop talking about the war made it long before you reached majority. And those people who took your trust and loyalty and used it for their own means -- that's not your fault. Sure, looking back you want to scream at yourself for being so naïve, but it hurts enough already, doesn't it, that the people you thought were there to love and care for you were the same ones who -- who did that to you. You don't need to add your own self-hatred on top of that mess."
Zuko wasn't sure who he was talking about anymore, but from Kuei's expression he could tell that the words were hitting home. "And yeah, you ran away. So did Aang. You made mistakes. Have you met me? I'm not saying this excuses anything; we all deserve to deal with the consequences of our actions, or else we don't learn."
"I'm not even sure what I'm supposed to learn," Kuei said, voice shaky. "All I do is learn, and it's never enough! There's never an answer, just more questions!"
Zuko knew the feeling, although in his case it had been more of a literal dumping on his ass and getting up just to get beaten down again. Finding the way was hard, and far from straightforward, and Zuko wasn't Uncle, who could fix most things with wise advice and a cup of leaf juice. But at least he'd had Uncle, when he needed him, and well, maybe some of what he'd struggled with back then could help someone else out now.
"Do you know what you want, Kuei?" Zuko asked. "As the Earth King."
"No," it didn't take Kuei long to respond. "To make everyone happy?"
Zuko couldn't stop himself from letting out a snort of disbelief. "That's impossible."
Toph chimed in from across the room, where she'd become more interested in their conversation than in searching tablets. "Just because you're never happy doesn't mean that it's impossible."
Zuko knew it would be useless to raise an eyebrow in her direction, but he did anyway for Kuei's benefit. "Believe me, someone's always going to want to kill you because of something you did -- "
"I should hope not!" broke in a startled Kuei, and that was a lot of dissociation coming from someone whose parents had been assassinated because of their positions.
"-- so you've got to figure out what's worth making a bunch of dangerous people very unhappy." Zuko was sometimes very bad at using his words, and he was beginning to think that this was one of those times. He tried again. "If there's something you know that is right beyond all doubt. Something worth doing, something honorable - a purpose that you decide is worth fighting for."
"Why does it always have to be about honor and fighting with you Fire people?" Kuei grumbled.
Before Zuko could start on another inadequate explanation, Toph broke in. "Start with standing your ground." She'd wandered over to the end of the long table, and smacked a fist down on it for emphasis. "Then see what happens. Believe me, if you're standing for something worthwhile, at some point it will become a fight."
"But how do I know what's worth standing for?" Kuei sounded distraught. "Everyone tells me something different! You know how politicians are. They talk and talk until you have to agree with them just to get them to shut up."
"You're a politician too, Kuei, like it or not. And only you can decide what you want, and if it's worth it, then it's worth trying even if you know you won't get it right the first time. Or the next, or the next, or the next. And each time you fail, you'll learn more about what actually needs to be done. Maybe it's different than what you thought in the first place. But if you don't try, you'll never know." Zuko wasn't sure if he'd managed to get his point across, but something between resignation and understanding was beginning to dawn on the Earth King's face.
"This is a lot to think about," Kuei said, expression still troubled. "I -- thank you. Thank you both."
"Well, just because Sparky here falls on his face a lot doesn't mean it's a requirement for learning what you want." Trust that brat of an earthbender to do her best to undermine him, Zuko thought wryly. She finished closing the distance between them and flopped down beside Zuko, propping herself up on her elbows. "Did I ever tell you how I invented metalbending?"
Twin snores, both unthinkably loud, echoed through the main chamber. Kuei adjusted his glasses and looked over to where Bosco was asleep. Toph had her feet up in the bear's fur, travel cloak thrown over her and partially curled under her head. He turned his glance back to his companion across the long table. Zuko was absorbed in his work, but Kuei's gaze must have pulled him out of it, because he looked up and his expression of concentration morphed to a puzzled scowl until he turned his head to the sleeping pair.
Zuko waved an ink-stained hand in an apologetic gesture. "You get used to it," he said, at the same time that Kuei started: "Sorry about that…"
Startled, Kuei laughed. Bosco and Toph were nothing alike, but it was clear that they had found common ground on the importance of announcing one's enjoyment of one's slumber to the world.
The young monarchs shared a brief smile, then got back to work.
They were running out of time. Zuko could feel it, in the inexorable creeping of the Sun towards the horizon. They'd agreed to leave in the morning, and that was now only single-digits of Earth Kingdom hours away. He'd be damned if they left empty-handed, but Zuko wasn't particularly keen to go another night without sleep. Even if the instructions for leaving the Archive made it sound safe, it also didn't explicitly state not to watch out for seven-headed serpents. Zuko wasn't about to trust this creepily-conscious tree, and he'd rather be at full alertness when they made their exit, but sometimes these things couldn't be helped.
Zuko rolled yet another frustrating map closed. What was it with all the blank spaces on these things? Were the Earth Kingdom surveyors just too lazy to leave the comfortable equatorial temperatures, or was the Northern Ice Empire so threatening that they weren't willing to go within a hundred leagues of the border? He knew surveying and mapmaking wasn't the esteemed line of work here that it was in the Fire Nation, but then Earth Kingdom geology changed on a much longer timescale than the volcanic islands of his homeland. Still, would it have killed the government to send out a competent group once every hundred years to update the records? And how had earthbenders never heard of topographical maps, anyway? The Earth wasn't two-dimensional! Although Zuko guessed that steep gradients mattered less if you were able to cheat and earth-sled your way over unstable mountain passes.
Of course, a darker possibility for the missing information was that it had been redacted. He hadn't read anything about Dai Li-equivalent forces existing in other major Earth cities, but then records of the Dai Li themselves tended to be scant and cryptic. Typical. Or perhaps monsters and evil spirits were as prevalent as the old storybooks claimed, making those areas truly too dangerous for travel. Either way, there were definitely details big and small that didn't add up just yet.
Zuko could feel the touch of far-off sunlight starting to change the sky outside to a pre-dawn grey when he finally sighed and set down his brush. As much as he hated to admit defeat, it looked like they weren't going to get any more answers out of the Archive. Besides, there was only so long he could avoid the real world of bickering clan leaders and royal duties.
It was time to return to Ba Sing Se.
Kuei wasn't ready to leave. Yes, he recognized the importance of eating and bathing and talking to his advisors and ruling his kingdom, but … he felt that they were so close. Just a small shake and the pieces of the puzzle would fall into place, and the answer they were looking for would be right there in front of them.
To say nothing of all the other words of wisdom the contents of the Archive offered. Kuei sighed and tried his best to make room in his bag for just one more book or scroll, but even the canvas itself seemed to be telling him that enough was enough. It was time to go.
"That's everything," Zuko announced, shouldering his pack and checking the draw of his swords from the scabbard underneath it.
"Well, this was super boring and we solved exactly nothing," Toph said, stretching her arms then cracking her knuckles one by one. "I can see why you two hate your jobs. But this wasn't the worst library I've ever been to."
Zuko protested that he didn't hate his job, it was just that sometimes his job hated him, to which Kuei could relate in a big way. And Kuei would hardly say they'd solved nothing; certainly not the problem at hand, but they'd learned a lot and … oh. Well, there might be one more thing that they could do about the border debate, because if the tickle in Kuei's mind was correct, they'd been wrong about the nature of the problem in the first place. They'd been looking at history and geography, when what they should have considered more was the geology!
Kuei couldn't believe he was the one saying this, but…
"There's only so much we can learn from written records. But there's still one source that we haven't checked…"
Kuei watched as his companions shared a weary look, asking each other through their body language how much more research they were willing to put up with. Kuei didn't give them time to decide; he wasn't ready to give up on this. He was the Earth King, after all, and even if he was more of a parchment-bender than an earthbender, Earth was still his element.
"We need to examine the earth itself!"
The story of the clans disputing the lake is roughly adapted from the rather interesting situation of the Bodensee, bordering mostly Switzerland and Germany, with a tiny bit of Austria involved.
Next update will be both a Proper Chapter and an Important Scene That Didn't Fit Previous Chapter, so if you are the kind of person who clicks through to the most recent chapter, you'll only find 500 words, so start with the Chapter 7 tab.
"Everything changed when the Ice Empire attacked" - Avatar Bingai, probably
Adventures, Kuei had decided, were much more boring than the books made them out to be. Or perhaps he was simply adjusting, no matter how improbable of a hypothesis that would have seemed at the start of the whole excursion. But the exit from the Archive had indeed been positively uneventful, and now they'd been riding for about two days in companionable calm, interrupted only by the occasional impassioned debate. Now, close to their final goal, they'd lapsed back into thoughtful silence.
They'd been climbing for hours when the woods finally gave way to a rocky spine that they followed out of the shadow of the mountain pass. Kuei felt the excitement building within as more and more of the valley below came into view. Finally, he called a halt and patted Bosco as he descended from the bear's shoulders. It had been hard work, even though bears and ostrich horses alike were accomplished climbers.
"Where are we?" wondered Toph, wiggling her toes into the dirt the instant Zuko guided her to the ground.
"Look," Kuei said proudly, indicating the valley, then immediately slapped his forehead. Bosco licked the resulting red mark in sympathy, and Kuei fumbled to catch his glasses.
Toph laughed. "You're learning, Scrolls, I'll give you that much."
"It's beautiful, but why are we here?" Zuko asked in typically blunt firebender fashion.
"You wanted to know where the Yantai River flowed one thousand years ago," Kuei said. "Well, here it is!"
"I'm not sure I follow," Zuko said. "There's a river down there, all right, but it's the same one that's on the modern-day maps."
"Describe to me what you see," Kuei said, instead of giving a straight answer. He knew the processes which formed the Fire Islands were very different, and he couldn't help but wonder what clues Zuko would read from this foreign geology. In the meantime, Bosco could use a snack. So could Kuei, for that matter.
"Yeah, describe it, Zuko," Toph added. "I kind of think you can see farther than me here. This mountain is loud!"
Zuko frowned but started talking as he took out his spyglass. "We're at the head of a long valley, on a rocky spine -- sort of an arête -- that cuts horizontally into a bowl in the mountains. There's still a bunch of snow and ice on the mountain above us, but the peaks are snow-free and sharp."
"That's not just snow and ice," Kuei broke in, looking up from his bag and unable to keep silent for long in his excitement. "That's a cirque glacier!"
"A what now?" asked Toph.
"The bowl of the mountains has a glacier in it," Kuei explained, gesturing behind and above them with a piece of dried fruit he'd pulled out of the snack bag. "It forms either when snow accumulates from avalanches, or it's what's left over when a valley glacier retreats."
"You lost me at 'glacier'," Toph grumbled. "Ice is just one big blank spot for me, remember?" She turned to Zuko for further explanation, but Kuei was already watching him intently as he came to a realization. Bosco used Kuei's moment of distraction to snatch the food from his hand.
"Oh," Zuko murmured, then turned to look down the valley, gold eyes going wide. "No way!"
Kuei smiled softly as he watched the young man extend the spyglass to look more carefully at the sides of the valley walls. "The great sage Sima once said that it is the other elements who are the greatest earthbenders. Water, air -- even fire -- shape the land, raise islands and give life to forests."
"What are you two talking about?" Toph demanded, stomping her foot and raising a few rocks in the process. "Because you can't possibly be talking about the greatest earthbender and I'm literally not even in the conversation?"
Kuei grinned and, catching a look from Zuko, subtly shifted out of punching range, settling on a comfortable-looking boulder to observe their discussion.
"What are you looking at?" Toph demanded, rounding on Zuko now, fingers snatching at a spyglass she couldn't use.
"Uh, so a glacier is more than just a really big ice block," Zuko started, raising the spyglass out of the short girl's reach. "They're actually in motion -- rivers of ice. Can you feel the foot of the mountain, Toph?"
"Kind of? There's a lot of rock up here."
"Well, this mountain is at the head of a valley. A really long valley, half a day's ride long, with steep walls, and the bottom is wide and flat, almost as wide across as the mountain is tall. There's farmlands in the valley, and rivers and streams from the snowmelt each year."
"What does that have to do with the big ice block glacier thing up there?" Toph asked, pointing behind them.
"What Kuei said," Zuko replied. "It's what's left when a valley glacier retreats. When it melts."
Kuei watched curiously as Toph considered, then shook her head. "There's no way this whole valley was filled with ice, Zuko. That's so much ice. It would take a ten thousand waterbenders a whole lifetime to melt it! Maybe even more!"
She was an order of magnitude off, Kuei would have said, but if one considered benders equal to her own capabilities he allowed that she might be in the right range.
"The blank spaces on the maps," Zuko said, seemingly mostly to himself, then turned to Kuei. "They weren't blank at all, were they? They were white, for ice! There used to be ice sheets and glaciers over one-third of the Earth Kingdom. This entire valley - this was the Yantai River!"
"I believe so," Kuei agreed. "It explains more than just the maps. There were spirit stories, trade records, blueprints - all these pieces that fall into place if you realize that two thousand years ago, the north was locked in ice. Which was so obvious to anyone living there that they never felt the need to write it down explicitly, like we don't write that the desert is full of sand. And then there's this."
Kuei carefully pulled a thin scroll out of his geometrically-packed-to-capacity bag and handed it to Zuko. "I saw you looking at the mural of Avatar Bingai earlier. I think this might help explain how things started to change so long ago."
It was probably Toph's fault, Zuko decided, but he took the scroll anyway. She must have told Kuei that he was still low-key obsessed with Avatar trivia. It was hardly Zuko's fault that Zhao had blown up his ship, priceless document collection and all, and that the only way to survive shopping trips with Sokka was by browsing antique bookstores for replacements. Besides, Aang needed someone to talk to about this stuff, and since Zuko had unintentionally become a leading expert on the Avatar during his years at sea -- if for nefarious purposes -- it seemed a waste to sacrifice all that knowledge instead of putting it to better use.
The parchment was well-kept and supple despite its age, Zuko noted as he rolled it open.
"What does an Avatar have to do with the entire rivers of ice disappearing?" Toph asked.
"I have a feeling we're about to find out," Zuko said, and began to read.
An Account of Avatar Bingai and the Cutting of the Channel
Sage Jianrong, Royal Historian, in the fifteenth year of the Seventh Earth King, Xi, first of his name
The time before Unification was a somber one for the people of the Earth Kingdoms. The Northern Ice Empire had slowly annexed more and more of the northern Earth Kingdoms, not caring if their citizens were born to Earth or Water. They say the ice itself spread along with the Empire. Unification under the First Earth King, Wong, slowed the advance, but it was seen as a desperate temporary measure. Once the Water Avatar was revealed at the age of sixteen, even the united Earth Kingdom could not hope to stand against the might of the Northern Ice Empire. For where else would a waterbending Avatar be born?
As the years passed, the rulers of the Ice Empire became more and more concerned as they failed to identify which of their children would be the next Avatar. Masters to the Southern Water Tribe could not find the child either. Troubled, the Empire considered: had the Avatar been born to an Earth Kingdom citizen? Surely the World Spirit could not look with such disfavour on their great nation!
And indeed it was that upon the death of Avatar Choden, the World Spirit had been reborn to Water in Bingai of clan Fu. This was not the first time the Avatar Cycle crossed national borders, but perhaps one of the most remarkable. Avatar Bingai's hometown of Fuxiang was in the prefecture of Fusheng, which at the time of her birth had been newly incorporated into the Earth Kingdom in the third year of Earth King Wong.
Bingai was regarded as a blessing from the World Spirit itself upon the Unification of the Earth Kingdoms against the threat of the ever-expanding Ice Empire. This new Avatar's identity, however, had to be kept a secret for her own safety; the Ice Empire would not hesitate to abduct the child, had they known the Water Avatar was a citizen of Earth.
Bingai was trained from a young age in waterbending, and became a master by the time of her sixteenth birthday and announcement as the Avatar. Despite many attempts on her life, Bingai survived and mastered the remaining elements, learning Earth from the benders in her own clan, Fire from the great Sage Kyu, and Air from the disciple of Choden himself.
In her first winter as a fully realized Avatar, the advance of the Ice Empire threatened her very home. When negotiations failed -- it was speculated that the Ice Empire wished to demonstrate that in their height of power, their armies could give pause to even the Avatar -- the elders of the clan, as well as her bending masters, counseled the distraught Bingai to stay her hand. The people of Fuxiang would find new homes, or serve under the new waterlords. Although the town was the second largest in the prefecture, they would have to endure its loss. Even the might of the united Earth Kingdom would not be enough to hold back a winter advance of the waterbending masters of the Ice Empire. They would meet the Imperial Army in full force the following summer, if the spirits deemed it favorable.
Bingai was young, and often seen as impatient by her peers; but perhaps those of Earth judged too harshly the adaptability of Water. She would later explain her decision as guided by the words of past Avatars themselves, but few took her at her word. Whatever her reasoning, the consequences of inaction were clear and personal. Bingai's family would lose their home and their lands, and in the next year's battle her father and brothers might lose their lives.
Time was growing short, as were the days as Imperial troops began their yearly march south. Rumors spread to Fuxiang that the Imperial Icemasters themselves would spearhead the attack. These master waterbenders trained at the Pole where the ice was thickest, honing their craft to move greater and greater quantities, to the point where the true extent of their capabilities approached legend. They traveled to the front as needed on great sleds of ice, said to fly faster over snow than dragons through the sky. Known as the Northern Shroud, the mists of the crystals flying up in their wake was a harbinger of doom in those times.
The Shroud was rumored to have swept the North Pole that night when everything changed.
Witnesses of that night, outside of the Avatar herself, did not survive to record their testimonies. But what was abundantly clear was that day broke on water, not sea ice, far north in the wilds separating the North Pole from the greater continent. A wide new channel stretching between the great bays of the East and West, had been born. Icebergs torn free of the ice sheet bore the marks of the Avatar State in all its righteous fury, carved into unnatural shapes from gales of fiery air and scarred by rockfalls. Avatar Bingai herself would not be seen again until five years later on Whale Tail Island.
Cut off from their supply lines at the height of their strength, the Imperial Army retreated, pulling back to their northernmost possessions on the continent. The Earth Kingdom was quick to reclaim the territory the Ice Empire abandoned. By winter's end, the war had also ended, with the nations agreeing that the Northern Channel would mark the border between them, as it had been in the time of legend. The Northern Shroud was never seen again during Bingai's lifetime.
Avatar Bingai's actions that day shaped the landscape of the Four Nations in more than just a physical sense. Historians credit the redefining of the modern Earth Kingdom's nationalistic concept to those days. The spiritual implication of the cutting of the channel was clear; the Nations were to be separate, and they were bound to their borders. As the overarching importance of clan faded in light of unification, so too did the identification of a nation or kingdom with its people, being replaced by an identity based on the physical land inhabited by those people or clans.
"I can't believe she actually melted the Northern Sea," Zuko exclaimed when he had finished reading. "Or even just a channel in it. Either way, that -- that's so much water. Three weeks adrift on a raft's worth of water. A thousand times what was in this valley, and I can barely wrap my head around that! I thought that was just some crazy legend!"
Kuei blinked out of the spell that the cadence of the Fire Lord's rough yet pleasant voice had cast. "They say that even the wildest of tales hold at least a grain of truth." He glanced at the young man with a wry look. "Perhaps even the one about you jumping between airships of an invading armada."
Toph cackled and Zuko winced and turned his face away, uncomfortable. "Well, it was more like I fell off of the first one, but otherwise, you could describe it like that. Not my finest moment of decision-making, but I was really mad at my sister."
Kuei blinked, because he had been expecting none of that, and evidently Toph found his reaction suitably amusing because she was in a full-out laughing fit. Even Zuko joined in with undignified snickers, and Kuei felt himself pulled into their mirth. It had been a long time since he'd genuinely laughed with other people, and it was a far cry from the fake court laughter he was obligated to use with his nobles. Bosco failed to understand their amusement, and Kuei wasn't sure what he was laughing about any more but either way it was the most joyful he'd felt in a long time.
"I don't see what Bingai has to do with all this ice melting." Toph said when she'd caught her breath. "Sure, she cut one channel. So why did the rest of the continent melt?"
"The current in the Northern Sea between the North Pole and the continent is warm," Zuko said, thoughtfully. "Too warm for sea ice to form consistently, that is. That's why the Northern Water Tribe is so prosperous compared to the Southern. They actually have a short growing season, in the islands southwest of the capitol. So they can support a larger population. And their harbor stays naturally ice-free even in winter."
"What, so the Avatar State got carried away and firebent the entire ocean too?" Toph cried. "What would be the point of that?"
"I actually hadn't thought of that," Kuei broke in. He knew enough about bending to assume that Bingai had used waterbending to change the ice to water, but perhaps by simultaneously firebending the task could have been accomplished more efficiently. "Personally, I saw it as insurance against the sea ice just growing back the next winter."
"The Avatar State is not exactly the best interpreter of its human host's intentions," Zuko added. "If Bingai wanted to permanently separate the Ice Empire and the Earth Kingdom, it might have gotten out of hand to ensure that the objective was accomplished."
"The fossil records must show a large fish extinction that year," Kuei mused. "There's quite a number of northern species that wouldn't be able to survive a temperature increase of more than a degree."
"And even the relatively small amount of melt from creating the channel resulted in the Great Salt Famine in the Fire Nation. Most of the farmlands are at sea level, so with storms and higher tides almost one third of the arable land in the Fire Nation became unusable in a season," Zuko added. "People died. The next two hundred years were some of the hardest times in Fire Nation history. The islands changed so quickly that we could barely adapt before something else came along."
"Forget not Time, the greatest bender of all," Kuei quoted from the popular Fire Nation play Love Amongst the Dragons. He was mildly surprised to see how the unscarred half of Zuko's face flushed pink at that, and how Toph rolled her milky eyes at the sky in an exaggerated fashion that clearly said why are we friends again?
Kuei pushed past their strange reactions and fleshed out his explanation. "It wasn't so bad for the rest of the world, since most other lands are farther from the equator. But with even such a small temperature rise in the water, storms get stronger. Sea level rises, naturally. Warm waters flowing through the channel ate at the sea ice until it was the Northern Sea we know today. And it also slowly eroded the ice sheet on the continent itself, and as summers got hotter and longer, even the glaciers started melting, leading to even higher sea levels. Two thousand years later, here we are." He gestured to the cirque of ice behind them. "It looks like a lot, doesn't it? More than any bender could hope to ever move. But it's barely a percent of what used to be here in this valley, much less over the entire northern third of the continent."
"Did Bingai know what would happen? That the world would change this much?" Toph asked, sounding very much her seventeen years of age.
"How could she?" Kuei sighed. "And in the end, was it a bad thing or a good thing? Would we be sitting in the Ice Empire right now? Or would the Fire Nation have grown stronger earlier, and still attacked? Even in Bingai's time, it was a difficult decision. People starved in the Ice Empire, Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation alike. Families were separated. At the same time, many lives were spared by avoiding bloody conflict."
They contemplated this in silence for a moment, before Toph asked in a small voice: "How many people died, when we ended the war?"
"Hundreds," Zuko answered, voice grim. "It would have been thousands, if Aang hadn't stopped Ozai. As it was - most of the casualties were Fire Nation. The airship fleet, or ground soldiers in Ba Sing Se." Kuei noticed Toph wince at that. Hadn't she known? He remembered the child she'd been when they'd first met, and thought that she shouldn't have had to know at the time what her actions had caused. "The next harvest was difficult in the southwest Earth Kingdom, where the fires did the most damage. The forest won't recover for a hundred years, but not all the farmland was destroyed. Still, we were fortunate. It was a relatively bloodless end to a long and bloody conflict."
"I'm sorry, Zuko. Those were your people." Kuei could sympathize with the earthbender's distress. It appeared that she truly hadn't given much thought to the aftermath of the final battle. Likewise, these kind of thoughts had hardly crossed Kuei's mind when he was staring at the shell of a giant drill next to the Wall. He had been too busy trying to find his place in a drastically changed world, and certainly couldn't blame anyone else in a similar situation for doing the same.
"Yeah," the firebender replied, letting out a shaky breath. Kuei knee that as Fire Lord, Zuko was held personally accountable for welfare of everyone in his Nation. Kuei himself was only so beholden to his clan members, in the custom of the Earth Kingdom, although he was additionally responsible for making sure the other kings treated their people right.
"It's not your fault, Toph," Zuko continued. "It was war; one side always pays a heavier price. I'm not saying the losses weren't difficult, but … Uncle has ordered more troops to their deaths than that. I would too, if it came down to it. Although I pray I never have to."
This young man had clearly spent a good deal of thought on the matter, Kuei realized, hearing the steel underlying the pain in his voice. Kuei wasn't sure that he could same the same of himself, even in the midst of conflict. He'd always been distanced from war, experiencing it at most secondhand during his brief months of travel after the fall of Ba Sing Se. Kuei was a scholar and a lawyer, not a fighter or commander. What would he be willing to ask his people to do? What had they already been asked to do in his name?
And the Fire Lord was looking pointedly at Kuei now, good eye narrowed to match the fire-streaked one. "Especially over a stupid farming conflict," he said with meaning.
Kuei cleared his throat nervously and reached for Bosco, but before he could speak Toph huffed and crossed her arms.
"What are the clans even fighting about if this whole valley was their precious river in the first place?" she demanded.
"An excellent question!" Kuei started enthusiastically, then was interrupted by Zuko's hand on his arm as the firebender started to describe the rest of the relevant landscape to the blind earthbender.
"At the foot of the valley, there's a large village, Xenshi, clustered around the widest river, named the Yantai. The people who live there, and who own the farmlands in the valley, are either a part of the traditional Ling Shi or Xenbai clans. Xenshi has been a Fire Nation colony for the last fifty years, but the Ling Shi claim their farmlands for the Earth Kingdom. Problem is, they don't own all the farmlands, but without all the resources from the farms available, there isn't enough to go around in the town during the hard winters."
"In the past, Fire Nation soldiers forced the farmlands to feed the colony, but the farms themselves were never formally incorporated into Xenshi," Kuei elaborated. "So they have a valid claim to still belong to the Earth Kingdom. Members of clan Ling Shi own over seventy percent of these farms. Before we left Ba Sing Se, the leaders of both the clans said that they'd accept the border between the colony and the Earth Kingdom as the route of the Yantai River in the year that the great Sage Jingshen blessed it -- more than one thousand five hundred years ago."
"Wasn't this all still ice back then?" Toph wondered.
"Exactly," said Zuko, grimly. "Yantai Glacier. A river of ice. We have the answer, finally, but in the end it's useless. It might get them to stop arguing, but it's not a solution to the problem."
Kuei had been thinking about that, though, since he'd started to have his suspicions about the ice. And he had an idea of what he wanted to do, and even if he wasn't sure it would work, Zuko was right and Kuei needed to at least try. Perhaps multiple times. So Kuei swallowed back his nervousness and all those little phrases he used to soften the directness of his words, and took in a deep breath.
He let it out in a nervous rush, and announced: "I know what to do!"
The eager look of anticipation on his companions' faces bolstered Kuei in a way he hadn't expected, and he felt strangely unfettered as he began to explain.
I headcanon that Love Amongst the Dragons is like the first 5 minutes of UP, and Zuko always ugly-cries because of it and Toph doesn't get what he sees in it. Hence their reactions to Kuei's quote.
Also, if anyone's interested, the estimated amount of energy required to melt a 1000km long channel 1km wide at a typical sea ice thickness of 2m is ~10 atomic bomb's worth.
Chapter 8: Interlude: Toph's Life-Changing Field Trip
"God help and forgive me, I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me." - Alexander Hamilton, Hamilton: An American Musical
"Zuko," Toph's voice was blurred with sleep as he settled down next to her. It was midnight, and Zuko wasn't sure how he felt about leaving the rest of the night watch to Bosco, but they were probably safe here as they could possibly be out in the wild, and Kuei had insisted that the bear was capable. The reassurance wouldn't stop Zuko from keeping one hand on his swords as he slept. If only to protect himself in the event that evil spirits made Bosco go feral in the night, and okay maybe Toph did have a point that his …concerns about the bear were approaching the irrational.
"Yeah?" Zuko wondered if the earthbender wanted something, but she just rearranged his arm as he lay down and pillowed her head on his tricep, like she had when they were young and she was the only one who knew what penalty accompanied traitor to the Fire Nation. So when she had whispered, home wasn't what I thought, and going back might kill me, she'd known he would understand, and he'd known at the same time that she understood the constant ache of sorrow for what might have been. They had mastered their demons now, but Zuko still didn't even consider grumbling that it wasn't that cold enough for her to need his extra heat.
"I'm scared," Toph confessed, and Zuko could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he'd ever heard that from her. "Do you think that the things we do now are going to have effects that last hundreds of years in the future?"
"Of course," he replied, letting his breathing slow as he stared up at the winking starlight.
"That's easy for you two to say," Toph retorted. "You're the Fire Lord and the Earth King. What about me?"
Zuko breathed out a low chuckle. "Toph, you invented metalbending. You've already changed the world, maybe more than Kuei or I ever will."
"Yeah. I did do that, didn't I?" Instead of sounding smug like she usually did when that topic came up, she sounded nervous. "I didn't think much about what that meant for the world, when I did it."
"So what are you going to do about it?" Zuko asked.
Toph was silent for a long time; Zuko's thoughts were dancing along the dreamline by the time she replied.
"I think," she said, calling him back to wakefulness, "there's going to have to be ethics. Maybe a manual about Best Practices too. Something like that. It will have to start with me teaching my students how to do the right thing, of course."
"That's a good place to start, Toph," Zuko said, knowing she could feel the smile tugging at his lips.
Did Toph just accidentally get a life-changing field trip in 500 words? IT WAS THIS EASY, MAKERS OF BOOK 3 (in a AU WIP, she gets one in 5 sentences) maybe I am too sensitive about this…anyway final chapter coming next week!
Chapter 9: Chapter 8
“Believe it or not, I was not always as awesome as I am today” - Barney Stinson, How I Met Your Mother
Kuei didn't look nervous, but his left hand kept twitching underneath the long sleeves in a motion Zuko had come to know as a reach for the reassurance Bosco's wiry fur. Zuko supposed he couldn't blame the Earth King for feeling uncomfortable without his emotional support animal; Zuko would never have made it through his first War Council meeting as Fire Lord without his emotional support Uncle. Sure, Kuei wasn't here to tell a room full of people who made their living on war that it was going to stop because he said so, and the clan leaders here hadn't last seen Kuei as a weeping child refusing to fight an Agni Kai. But Zuko could appreciate the sweat-inducing anxiety that came with presenting a ruling to an audience not inclined to agree with you.
"It is our decision," Kuei announced in a voice that had taken on an imperious edge which countered the previous academic tone he had used to recount their historical and geological findings, "That the farmlands surrounding Xenshi will not be formally recognized as belonging to either the Earth Kingdom or the Fire Nation."
It was just five of them in the small meeting room -- Zuko, Kuei, the shifty-eyed Ling Shi leader Lang, the Xenbai leader and mayor of Xenshi, who was a broad man with salt-and-pepper hair named Cho, and a junior court stenographer who was maybe a year or two younger than Zuko, a young man by the name of Kabu, if he recalled correctly. But somehow it still felt as if a murmur had swept through a crowd, by the looks the clan leaders were giving each other. Even Kabu seemed surprised, his seated body language going through the equivalent of an expressive eyebrow raise, although his face remained perfectly polite. Zuko would have hardly noticed if he hadn't become accustomed to Toph's way of observing people; she would find the subtle way Kabu was emoting are you kidding me as Cho prepared to interrupt hilarious.
"Let me finish," Kuei ordered, stopping Cho in his tracks, and even Zuko felt himself sitting up straighter, surprised that the Earth King was almost capable of snapping. "The historical river border that the esteemed leaders of the Ling Shi and Xenbai clans both agreed to respect encompasses the entire valley, both town and farmland." Kuei nodded to Cho and Lang in acknowledgement. "This makes it impossible to settle the dispute to the mutual satisfaction of the clans, so as Earth King I assume responsibility of the Earth Kingdom's interest in the matter, just as Fire Lord Zuko speaks for his nation."
Zuko gave a curt nod to the faces that had turned his way, and hid a small smile at the evil cackle that was implied in the tension of Kabu's shoulders. Why had Zuko never noticed him before, Toph would love this kid.
"This territorial limbo will only be instated because of the impending harvest season. This year's harvest will be subsidized by the town of Xenshi, free of any tariffs or duties normally required for international trade, to assure a winter free of hardship."
Zuko winced internally at this; he'd only recently found out that Cho and the colonial leaders before him had been charging questionably legal import taxes on goods coming from Ling Shi-owned farms, since they claimed to be part of the Earth Kingdom.
Kuei continued. "Once the harvest has been gathered, preparations will begin for a self-determination referendum, as is the traditional right of any clan."
Oh, and now even Kabu's eyes were wide, accompanying the posture screaming what did I just hear as loud as the clan leaders clearly wanted to. Zuko suppressed a smirk; the ancient statute had never been nullified, but it was a bold move to suggest acting on it. To his credit, Kuei barreled on past the stunned reactions. They weren't done being surprised today.
"However, the conditions for participating in the referendum will be in deference to Fire Nation societal norms. All legal inhabitants of Xenshi and the surrounding valley -- all men and women who have reached majority -- will be allowed to participate. Following the result of the referendum, the town of Xenshi will legally incorporate the surrounding farmlands, and the area as a whole will either be annexed to the Earth Kingdom or remain a Fire Nation colony."
The only sound in the room for a while was the rustle of a brush on paper, which Zuko could have sworn the stenographer was dragging out for dramatic effect.
Cho was the first to recover his court face. "Your Majesty … while we had been hoping that the traditional boundaries between our lands could settle this matter, we had not anticipated quite such a … quaint … tradition to offer a tenable solution. Xenshi is a modern town, and the majority of its citizens have lived under the customs of the Fire Nation for their whole lifetimes. Surely you cannot expect them to abide by an ancient Earth law? I'm certain Fire Lord Zuko does not!"
Zuko turned up the level on his scowl to the special one reserved for the sleaziest of politicians, and eyed the clan leader the way Mai assessed a target for the least boring places she could land her knives. When a drop of sweat formed on the man's brow, he spoke.
"Earth King Kuei is familiar with the Fire Nation way of using the singular when referring to royalty. So when he says 'our decision', he means what any common person would think he meant. This decision is fully supported by both the Earth Kingdom per His Majesty, and by the Fire Nation, through myself." Zuko had gotten better at court phrasing over the years, and this was the closest he could tread to "what the man said, were you not fucking listening" that he could get without actually offending anyone.
Kuei gave an enthusiastic nod in corroboration, nearly displacing his hat-like crown. Zuko caught his eye and the Earth King gave an imperious wave of dismissal. Kuei barely waited for the two men to back out the door before he rushed for the side exit in a flurry of robes, with an indistinct mumble of which Zuko caught nothing but the word Bosco.
Zuko let his smirk show on the outside now too, although the room was now too empty to appreciate it. Except for Kabu, who laid down his brush with the maximum amount of smugness one could accomplish with such a motion, and began gathering up his papers.
Zuko turned to the young man who was about to bow out and cleared his throat. "Uh, it's Kabu, right?"
The stenographer's eyes were wide as he nodded.
"Do you know who I would talk to about getting a copy of that transcript done in nice calligraphy?" Zuko thought that Kuei might appreciate a framed reminder of this small triumph. A drawing of the looks on Cho and Lang's faces would be better, but unless Kabu was a sketch artist as well, there was little hope for that.
"There's a court calligraphy office sir, I'm sure I can arrange it for you." The young man's voice was pleasant but not generic, Zuko noted, which Toph would appreciate.
"I'd like that very much. Oh, and do you have dinner plans next weekend?" Zuko should probably invite his aide-de-camp along as well, in case Toph and Kabu didn't hit it off right away. At the very least they could compare shorthand styles, which seemed different enough to warrant discussion. And Uncle was always pointing out to Zuko what delightful company his young aide was.
… Why was Kabu looking at him so strangely? Zuko would have to ask Uncle about it later. Right now he needed to catch up to Kuei.
Kuei didn't hear the footsteps coming up behind him because he had his face buried in Bosco's fur and he was maybe shaking just a little bit from a strange mix of anxiety and excitement and relief, but he did hear Bosco turn his head and then some slurp-chewing so Kuei knew that it was Zuko and he'd just sneaked Bosco yet another treat, and hadn't Kuei told him that Bosco was on a diet? Honestly, Kuei almost preferred it when the firebender had been scared of the bear.
"Good job in there," the Fire Lord said, coming around to the same side of Bosco as Kuei.
Kuei reluctantly pulled himself out of the reassuring fur and adjusted his glasses to look at the younger man with a small smile.
"It was the right thing to do," Kuei said humbly. "At least, I hope it is. I realize the details may be far from perfect, but I really think the concept is the right foundation for this kind of thing…"
He fell silent as Zuko grasped his forearm in a Water Tribe gesture of camaraderie. What was it with him and Toph, couldn't they keep from borrowing other nations' customs? Cultural whiplash wasn't an academic term as far as Kuei knew, but if it didn't exist yet he was certainly going to have to invent it.
"You'll be a good and honorable king, Kuei. I know it." Zuko's gold eyes bored into his own with the young man's typical intensity.
And well, that was worth a little whiplash, Kuei thought, heat rising to his face. He didn't drop the other man's gaze though as he replied, sincere. "Thank you. You've been a good example for me."
Life changing, Toph had stressed to Kuei the importance of their little field trip. Well, it was hard to disagree with that. Kuei was going to have to sign these clan leaders up for the next one.
Iroh wouldn't go so far as to say that he enforced a curfew for his young nephew and his even younger self-adopted niece. But there was definitely an hour after which, if his joints had woken him up again, Iroh would feel the need to check their rooms if they hadn't come back before he had gone to bed.
This was one such day, but at least they'd stopped by for dinner after being gone for the previous week with nothing but a note in his nephew's neat hand saying Gone to do research, back in 3-7 days, anyway need to make the trade minister sweat. Iroh had gotten a much more fascinating tale out of them during the meal (far from fascinating the way Zuko told it, but Iroh knew how to embellish as needed), but then they'd left a few hours later saying they'd promised to go over their findings with the Earth King.
And how proud of them was Iroh, that his blind niece had taken it upon herself to learn to read, and his impatient nephew had helped to teach her! It warmed his old heart; they'd both had to grow up too fast, but to watch them mature and flourish as well was a blessing he would never take for granted again.
So it was mostly because he missed them and partly because he suspected they hadn't been sleeping much that Iroh decided to bring some late-night tea to the Earth King's library. The late-summer night air was cool and moved his beard in a playful sway, carrying the soft scent of pine. What a fine night to be young and in love! If only his young charges could find partners to experience this with; as he always said, even the most mediocre of teas could seem a masterpiece when taken together with a lover. Iroh was a patient man, but he feared that if he put off his journey to the Spirit World until his nephew was happily married, he'd be too decrepit to enjoy it. Toph he was less worried about; once she figured out what she wanted, she wouldn't hesitate to go out and get it.
Iroh exchanged a greeting and a cup of tea with the night guards at the palace, chatting with a pair who he'd seen at the Jasmine Dragon once or twice on weekends with their wives. One, he was very pleased to discover, also had an accomplished and doubtless lovely daughter close to his nephew in age. Iroh invited the family over for dinner the next weekend, and resolved to convince Zuko's very attractive and capable aide-de-camp (whom Iroh had hand-picked, because if his nephew was constantly in contact with beautiful people he might eventually marry one of them) to join as well, which would have the added benefit of ensuring Zuko's schedule would be clear that night.
So it was just past midnight when he at last entered the wing of the palace that held Kuei's private library - which indeed occupied more of the wing than the Earth King's living quarters. The librarians evidently held a similar opinion of the Earth King as the palace staff did of Zuko; if he wasn't going to retire after normal working hours ended, he was on his own. Iroh pushed the heavy door open, noting that it swung effortlessly on well-oiled hinges, unlike the other doors he'd opened along his way. He took extra care to step silently as he navigated through walkways shadowed with tall bookshelves to the small pool of light ahead.
Iroh's eyes twinkled at the sight, and he let his gaze fall slowly over the scene, savoring it like that last precious sip of white jade tea. Toph was lying on the thick carpet just outside the circle of light cast by the flickering lamps, flames free of his nephew's usual paranoid control. She had her feet up on a slumbering bear and her head cushioned on an empty scroll bag. Printer's blocks of both old Fire Nation alphabet and basic characters of the standard script lay in disorganized racks at her side; one, complete, read "Ethics of Metalbending".
At the table, King Kuei was slouched down in his comfortable chair, head down and breathing deeply, ink-stained fingers twitching occasionally as if he was busy writing even as he slept. Iroh could make out a several sheets of parchment on the table, neatly titled in his nephew's severe handwriting and covered with a mix of tiny scrawled characters at every which orientation and precise, passive-aggressively perfect vertical lines of text. "Self-determination of the Fire Nation Colonies in the Earth Kingdom: a Ten-Year Roadmap," read the title of draft topping the pile, but Zuko's crimson sleeve covered the bottom half of the page from where his arms sprawled ungracefully over the table, head rested in the crook of one elbow.
Iroh placed the tea-basket on an unoccupied table and backed out of the room on silent feet. Then he quietly closed the door on the four friends, asleep in the Earth King's library.
And that's all, folks! Except for a bonus scene featuring June and Iroh, to be posted soon (tomorrow?) in the Appendix, along with other deleted scenes, references etc.
If I eventually write the world's most awkward family dinner where everyone has invited someone for someone else without telling them, it will be death by secondhand embarrassment and no one will be straight. Except probably Iroh.
Thanks for reading along, and it would make my day if you could drop a line letting me know what you thought!
Chapter 10: Appendix
What's next from this studio? Besides working on Old Friends, I've got a pretty dark Villain!Katara AU (teaser first sentence: "Kya hadn't lied, that day when the Southern Raiders came.") as well as a super hilarious Sokka-and-Zuko-co-parent-The-Duke AU ("Sokka was about to die from secondhand embarrassment when the feral child attacked.") coming up, so stay tuned! In the meantime, enjoy these outtakes and supplemental materials :D
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Missing Scene: MaximumFlirt!Iroh tries to engage June's …. Services
June wondered for the millionth and definitely not the last time why so much of her job entailed listening to men spout utter bullshit.
"I've just refinanced the mortgage on the apartment and tea shop," the current offender was stating. "Imagine being so successful that you drive up your own property value! Not that you aren't successful, of course. But I'm sure there's no shortage of bounties, which is not so much the case with real estate in the Upper Ring!" The Dragon of the West chuckled.
June twirled her sake cup irreverently on the table and addressed the heart of the matter. "So you can't pay," she said flatly.
"Of course I can pay!"
Like June hadn't heard that before.
"We'll simply have to work out an alternate payment plan."
Or that. At least things were looking up. Usually after such a suggestive tone came into the conversation, June got to throw people out of taverns on their asses.
Iroh leaned closer. June considered the legends surrounding the old general, and decided she could take him. Probably. Either way, it would be fun to find out, and she'd had worse client meetings.
"You see," the old man stage whispered. "My nephew is the Fire Lord. I'm sure that if I front half of the fee, he'll be good for the other half later. After we find him."
Well. Well well well. That was not at all what June had expected. She really wasn't sure what she wanted to do with these juicy bits of information except laugh at the irony of being hired to chase the angry Prince-turned-Fire-Lord and, naturally, drive for a higher price.
"Fire Nation's broke," she said in her best disinterested tone. "You'll have to do better than that."
What followed was a nigh-fifteen minute lecture where the old man ran the gamut of old man tricks, bored her to death with proverbs, and masterfully played the card of using June's own desire to ever do anything interesting in her life again against her.
"Fine," she snapped finally. "Say you're good for the payment. You got a recent enough smell sample?"
"Of course!" Iroh's grin made June want to kill herself only slightly less than his speech had as he pulled out a bunch of flowers from behind his back. "My nephew was using these to court a pretty lady..."
June stifled a guffaw. If Prince Pouty was dating a woman then Nyla couldn't smell a badgerfrog half a continent away. Besides...
"Flowers," she said flatly. "Great. Let me give this bundle of scents to my shirshu and hope she picks out the one that's your nephew's grimy hands."
That didn't deter the old man at all. "Naturally I brought a selection! I suppose you'll just have to hold on to this lovely bouquet - although it cannot compare to your radiant beauty."
He brought out a box of chocolates next. Followed by a whole range of completely useless smell samples that each just happened to be a component of a very nice gift basket (including the basket itself, which was disqualified by being perfumed), and which carried increasingly tenuous fictitious connections to the target himself. June was very tempted to hit herself in the forehead, but sake would accomplish the same thing from the inside the next day so she stuck with that. Said gift basket had come with a very high-quality refill, after all.
Finally, as June's patience threatened to stray into hunt first, bounty later, Iroh finally brought out something useful. And tasteful. And the only thing so far, besides the free booze, that June actually liked the look of.
It was a small onyx pendant, shaped into a skull but with filigree flowers contrasting the morbid form, with the tiniest, bloodiest of rubies set into the eye sockets.
"This," continued the old man, with a dramatic sigh, "Is something my nephew bought a few days ago for his ex-girlfriend. He still loves her, as you can clearly see, but alas he did not inherit my natural charm."
That story June could actually believe, more because the style of the pendant was the exact opposite of the kitsch trinkets Iroh had gifted her before than because she actually thought there was a waterbender's chance in the Si Wong desert that Nephew Scowls-a-lot was straight.
"My dear nephew, it seems, is unlucky in love," Iroh said mournfully.
Riiiiigght. Luck was definitely to blame there, June wanted to say, and then did, because she had poor impulse control.
The old man didn't take her drift, but took the opportunity to hit on her again, suggesting slyly that he might get lucky if they went into business together.
That had been sarcasm, right? No matter how poorly executed? Because he couldn't possibly be serious.
June could do sarcasm. And if she remembered correctly, Prince Pouty's glances at the witty Water Tribe boy clearly said that he wished he could do sarcasm, too. So this was probably a family trait, even if the meaning of 'do' was vastly different in the two cases.
"This hasn't been fun, Mushi," she said finally, unable to put up with any more. "And it's clear you're broke, so no deal."
She'd never intended to actually take the job anyway. Say what you want about the Prince -- Fire Lord, whatever -- but there was a reason June had never considered taking him as a mark back when he'd been worth a comfortable early retirement. Kid was dangerous, and worse, determined. The kind of mark that shouldn't be taken alive, and June didn't kill kids, no matter how annoying their uncles were.
The old general had the gall to look affronted as she stood up, flipped a coin at the bartender, and turned to leave.
"Besides, I've had a better offer."
She was still taking the gift basket, obviously.
The door opened on the first knock, a fact which simultaneously sent a little flutter of pleasure through June's stomach and initiated a professional scowl at the lack of caution for personal security it demonstrated. Not that Misaki needed to be overly concerned about her security; she had her own bodyguards after all, a necessity of her position as the Fire Lord's aide-de-camp.
"The general give you any trouble?" Misaki greeted June without preamble, ticking off business agenda items with ruthless efficiency as usual.
"Not as much as I'm going to give you," June purred, putting her best slink into her posture.
A perfect eyebrow arched. June did her best to not melt down the doorframe that was currently supporting her more than she'd like to admit.
She'd met Misaki purely by accident, getting a signature for her requisition form after taking a small job for the Fire Nation. The usual sour bursar was absent, replaced by this vision of curves, competence and zero tolerance for anyone's bullshit. June had watched her double-check the paperwork while shaming a lieutenant into adopting two badgercats and the street child who'd tried to pickpocket him, then spot and deal with a safety hazard in the building in all the time it took her to scrawl her elegant signature, and wondered if this was what love felt like. It was certainly infatuation if nothing else.
Later in the week June had gone against her own rule of not mixing business with pleasure and used the pen she'd lent Misaki to sign with to find her and follow her to a noodle joint after work, pace outside cursing until June got up the balls to just go inside and ask her if she'd like to get tea sometimes. It wasn't her proudest moment, but as a bounty hunter June had done far worse. Anyway, it had worked out in the end. Misaki had looked June up and down, apparently satisfied that she wouldn't be wasting her time, and suggested skipping the leaf juice in favor of something slightly stronger.
June knew she had it bad after that. She'd hunt this booty -- ah, bounty -- for free any day.
"Don't worry, I'm in no hurry for your boss to come back and start interfering with the wonderful work you're doing for the world, dear," June assured her girlfriend.
"Good." Misaki visibly relaxed, switching from professional mode to personal mode as she stepped back from the door to let June in, greeting her with a kiss on her way past. "I finally managed to reform the bar exam system this morning, you know, which really was the cornerstone of the last fifty years of legal system failures in the first place."
June didn't understand everything Misaki had just said, but that trademark combination of sexy and intimidating was everything June aspired to and more.
"Sorry babe, one last thing I need to mention… " Misaki got that cute forehead crease that meant she'd forgotten something; June prided herself on being one of the few people who could distract Misaki enough to cause it to appear. "There's a …sort of family dinner, next weekend? It's with people from work, so I'd understand if you don't want to come."
"I'll be there if you want me to. Maybe their ugly faces look better when they're shocked," June's evil grin drew a giggle from her girlfriend. She changed her tone back to low and sultry. "Now, are we here for business or pleasure?"
"I should hope there's nothing businesslike about this relationship," Misaki replied and pulled June into a deep kiss, then shut the door.
If any of you have read my other works, you probably know by now that I am fairly incapable of writing a 'serious' story. This is probably the closest thing that's in my (recent) repertoire so far, and it had Deadpool!Toph in it…. but I assure you. IT COULD HAVE BEEN MUCH WORSE. The crack muse is ever-present and hard to ignore. So here's some of the stuff that got cut from the main story in an attempt to present a respectable front.
For the meta: 'everyone low-key ships each other with the other person':
Deleted one-liner at the very end of Chapter 2:
"On the other hand," Toph whispered not a moment later. "Knowing what I know of the Earth King, for him this is probably the best first date ever."
Deleted from Chapter 4, which was originally going to be a much closer following of The Cave of Two Lovers
Toph: "Maybe it's like when Aang and Katara got stuck in that crystal cave and had to make out to get out."
Zuko: "That's not at all what I heard and besides, it's completely irrelevant."
Toph: "Oh, Katara didn't say that, but it was written all over her pulse. Anyway, we're hours into your date by now, you and Kuei should just kiss already!"
Zuko: "Toph, for the last time, this is not a date, and I'm pretty sure that could cause an international incident if word got out."
Toph: "Is that what you want me to tell Uncle?"
Zuko: "Ugh, no, I need him off my back, I would really prefer it if he thought I was going out with someone."
Toph: "Fine, but I think someone needs get their kiss on or we're going to be toast!"
Zuko: "You and I are literally holding hands right now. Are you sure that's the route you want to go, Toph?"
Toph: "On second thought, what about we burn this whole place down."
Kuei: "Why does no one ever ask us what we think, Bosco?"
Deadpool!Toph: "You're the hot chick, no one pays you to think!"
(Me: … Ouch. I can't publish that.)
Deleted from Chapter 5: SleepDeprived!Zuko ships Toph and Kuei
Zuko....wasn't sure what had just happened. Toph had asked him to teach her how to read. Him, not Kuei. And then she'd just abandoned him the moment she found someone better.
Which totally, completely, was not at all a weird mirror situation from his childhood come back to haunt him. Because he didn't have enough of that in his life already.
Zuko didn't think he was a bad teacher. Aang had certainly enjoyed learning with him, and on occasion continued to do so. And the half-dozen or so soldiers that Zuko was training in firebending with the dual dao seemed to appreciate his tutelage. Even though they technically worked for him, so they had ulterior motives for not critiquing his teaching style too much. So they why had Toph....
Oh, no. No, no, no, fuck no. Could Toph...like Kuei? As in, like like? That would be weird, right? The Earth King had to be at least ten years older than Toph, if not more. And he was nice and accommodating - too accommodating, Toph would walk all over him if she wanted to - and insightful, and all that would balance Toph pretty well actually, and maybe some of her characteristics would rub off on him and he'd learn to stand his ground a little better.
And that was as far as Zuko was willing to let his sleep deprived brain go, since it had started to short circuit at rub off on. He didn't know how Uncle did it, throwing attractive prospects at him left and right and probably praying for the day to come when he would find Zuko in a compromising position with one of them. Zuko knew that Toph was more than old enough to start dating, but the thought of it was just so... weird. Like when he'd seen Azula with that shallow jerk Chong or whatever at that stupid party. Sure, she could protect herself physically but what about her heart? Zuko would kill anyone who broke his little sister's heart. Any of his little sisters'.
He was probably making something out of nothing. Would they even be cute together? Maybe? Ugh, he did not want to picture that. Maybe he should go lie down for a bit. His brain had to be playing tricks in him.
....that happy, genuine laughter of Toph's floating in through the door was probably a hallucination. And the petrified wood floor was nice, not cold like stone but still hard, and such nice patterns of red and brown...what did everyone else have against red anyway, it was a great color that went so well with all the other best colors, like black and gold.
Before he realized it, Zuko was fast asleep.
Deleted from Chapter 7.9: Kuei would ship Zuko and Toph, except he wants to live
Oma and Shu.... were they a couple? Kuei almost felt his heart stop in fear as he looked over at the slumbering benders. Surely the way they were currently arranged was far too intimate to be appropriate for two nobles of marrying age? Of course, one had to allow for the psychological effects of saving the world, as examined by Dr. Pi Lu's appallingly poorly cross-referenced work Side-Effects of Saving the World: a Sidekick's Perspective, which Kuei had once casually consumed for vacation reading. The author had probably never even saved an owl-cat from a high tree branch, but some of the psychology arguments were actually well-reasoned. So it was possible that they were just really, really, really close friends. Who were right now really, really, physically close together. And who were both objectively attractive people.
Kuei panicked. Was he supposed to be chaperoning? How did inter-cultural relationships even work? The body of literature on the subject was small and of little interest to Kuei, to whom even normal intracultural relationships were a great unsolved mystery that he didn't particularly want personal experience with. Not to mention the complicating factor of nobility.
Deep breaths, Kuei, focus on the facts. Kuei inhaled, then exhaled, figuring that if it worked for temperamental firebenders it ought to work for timid Earth Kings just as well.
Fact number one. The world was still spinning. This had to be the greatest single piece of evidence against a romantic relationship between his two companions. He'd heard tell of their friendly sparring matches before, and they were easily capable of destroying medium-sized towns. If they were actually dating, and had had even the smallest real fight -- well Kuei would have heard of the troop deployments necessary to quell that level of violence.
Fact number two.
Kuei looked over at the sleeping duo, and couldn't think of a fact number two. By Bosco's teeth, they were adorable together like that.
Kuei clung to fact number one as he eventually calmed down and drifted off to sleep.
That did nothing to stop the nightmares.
Naming conventions in the different nations (start of Chapter 3, when they arrive at the tree)
Zuko: This Archive doesn't sound so secret if an entire village knows about it.
Kuei: Oh, well, that's just how we like to name things in the Earth Kingdom sometimes. It adds that extra bit of exclusivity, you know? So it's a fun custom, in a way. Kind of how everything in the Fire Nation starts with Fire.
Zuko: Not everything -
Toph: Fire Islands, Fire Temples, Fire Sages, Fire Army, Fire Navy, Fire Air Force, Fire Festivals, Fire Flakes…
Zuko (talking over Toph, who continues to list things): Ok, a lot of things. Although I did read that a few generations back, we tried the prefix 'hot', but that didn't turn out well.
Kuei: *explains it based on Fire Nation equivalent of Asterix and Obelix that was popular back then*
*meanwhile, in the background, a small scuffle ensues as Toph starts: "Ha ha, that's right, Sifu - " "DON'T CALL ME THAT!!" *
*Kuei feels a bit bewildered and neglected but continues his explanation nonetheless.*
Conversations in the library (before Chapter 5 got to 8k words and had to be split in two)
Kuei: Women are terrifying.
Toph, all up in his personal space and grinning like a maniac: Yes, we are.
Zuko: Toph, everyone is scared of you when you do that.
Toph: You're one to talk, you're scared of Bosco!
Zuko: I am not!
*Bosco growls, Zuko twitches*
Zuko: I am only a little scared of Bosco!
The Economics of Friendship (Extension of Chapter 7.9, to be followed immediately by deleted scene: Kuei would ship Toko)
Toph chuckled and elbowed him lightly in the ribs. He made some vague noises in protest but didn't pull away. "Good thing I bought into your stock option when it was so low," she said, and Zuko went back to frowning. "By the time you retire I'm gonna have so much 'I told you so' capital," Toph finished contentedly. "Unless you get fired, that is."
Zuko snorted. "You do know that happens, it will probably be literally and I'll definitely be dead?"
"And here I thought you'd be less angsty half-asleep," Toph shot back, sarcastically. "Go to bed, Fire Lord. I'm sure there will be more world-changing you can do in the morning before death comes for you."
References (Earth King Kuei's Partial Reading List)
Open source, feel free to borrow but CITE YOUR SOURCES dammit or Kuei and Bosco will hunt you down (ie, give credit plz)
Xaifun Prefecture under the Seventeenth Earth King
Trade in the Times of the Lian Hu-Shang Dispute
Water Rights on the Borders of Ji Hong and Si Wong Prefectures
An Account of Avatar Bingai and the Cutting of the Channel
Charter and Bylaws of the Unification of the Earth Kingdoms
On the Origin of the Four Nations
Theoretical Limitations of Bending Complete With Case Studies, Book Two (Fire)
Fundamental Bending Philosophies
Get Rich Quick with Real Estate Prospecting Along the Front
Dai Li or Die: Survival for the Recent Arrival
So Your Mama Told You You're a War Child
What to Expect when You're Expecting your Town to be Taken Over by the Fire Nation
Fake it Till You Make It: A 10-step Guide to Document Forging
Pig-Chicken Soup for the Teenaged Soul
Beacons for the Ages: Agni's Greatest Heroes
Sociology of the Post-Avatar Fire Nation
Voyages Among Volcanoes: A Cultural Treatise on the Children of Agni
Side-Effects of Saving the World: a Sidekick's Perspective
Head Injuries for Idiots: The Definitive Medical Guide
Mushroom Madness and Other Ghastly Diseases
Epic of the Dragon-Bird
Descent into the Eighth Circle
Love Amongst the Dragons
Geology and ATLA Math
Calculation of the power required to melt a channel overnight
Assuming 1km wide channel through 2m thick sea ice, 1000km long, that's 10 Hiroshima bombs worth of energy just to melt the water (not accounting for the slightly higher melting point of seawater as opposed to pure water)
Heating it an additional 10 degrees to discourage immediate reformation is another Little Boy.
This is still 2 orders of magnitude less the total energy released by the eruption of Mt. Krakatoa.
Time required to melt a continental ice sheet (following a catastrophic event)
Assume ~ 40 years per Earth King rule, that means first Earth King ruled ~2000 years ago (Kuei is the 52nd)
Ice starts melting under first Earth King, and the Yantai is still a glacier under the 17th Earth King => 650 years later
Meaning sometime between 1400 years ago and however long it takes to forget an ice age, the continent thawed.
Also it probably takes a century or so for the marine ecosystem to get back to equilibrium after such a catastrophic melting event as the Channel.
What's the current rate of glacial melting on Earth? It's latitude dependent but at lower latitudes (example Glacier National Park, Montana) >2/3 of the 150 glaciers have completely disappeared in the last century.
Ignoring all the problems with gravity and atmospheric/planetary composition if the ATLA world is indeed smaller than our own (as is logical given the size of the map and the hypothetical speed of sky bison) … it's probably reasonable to assume that the ice sheet and associated glaciers melted completely ~800 years after Avatar Bingai.
Disclaimer: not a geologist, however different kind of 'ist', all chickens are spherical.
Now taking votes for what to start posting next, Villain!Katara AU or Zukka Co-parenting AU! Comment here if you like or get in touch on tumblr